Background

In 2014, AB 420 was chaptered into law prohibiting the use of defiance/disruption as grounds for K-3 suspensions and K-12 expulsions but it is scheduled to sunset on July 1, 2018. AB 420 resulted in a 60% drop in defiance/disruption suspensions in elementary schools during 2013-2015. This means that more than 15,000 suspensions of K-3 students were prevented, incentivizing school districts to adopt non-punitive alternatives to suspensions and expulsions.

Currently, Education Code § 48900(k) allows students in grades 4-12 to be suspended from school for disruption or defiance. SB 607 would eliminate suspensions and expulsions under this provision for all grade levels and keep more students in schools. If SB 607 is not passed, all students will again be subject to suspension and expulsion based on “defiance/disruption,” which means students will be suspended or expelled from school and denied valuable learning time for anything from talking back, failing to turn in homework, not paying attention, refusing to follow directions, or swearing in class – and even for just one isolated incident.

It is estimated that this category was identified as the most “severe” grounds for some 96,421 suspensions or 20% of all suspensions in the state during the 2016-17 school year. Neither disruption nor defiance is defined anywhere in the Education Code; as such, what constitutes a suspendable offense under § 48900(k) is largely left to the subjective judgment of school personnel.

Because it is so subjective, suspensions and expulsions based on § 48900(k) raise serious concerns about their disproportionate impact on students of color and other vulnerable student groups – including students with disabilities and/or those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ), and/or gender non-conforming. Research confirms that there is an even greater disparity in suspensions and expulsions for low level, subjective offenses like defiance/disruption for students in these groups as compared to more serious, objective offenses. Further, social science confirms that subjective decisions are those most likely to be influenced by one’s implicit biases. Data made available by the California Department of Education further solidifies this research, revealing that Black students in California face nearly 4 times as many disruption/defiance suspensions per 100 students than white students face, for the same behavior. Students with disabilities comprise 11 percent of California’s student enrollment but accounted for nearly 28 percent of defiance/disruption suspensions.

This bill does not limit other Education Code provisions that are more clearly defined, including the ability to suspend or expel students for harassment, threats, and intimidation that rise to the level of materially disrupting classwork, creating substantial disorder, and invading the rights of students and school personnel by creating a hostile education environment (Educ. Code § 48900.4). Overall, the bill leaves in place more than 20 other reasons a student may be suspended from school or recommended for expulsion. Defiance/disruption is no longer used as grounds for suspension and expulsion in several school districts including Azusa, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Oakland, and San Francisco.

More than two decades of research has confirmed that suspensions do not work. They do not improve student behavior and, in fact, often exacerbate the problem, as the children who are disciplined for these offenses often come from homes with the least supervision and have themselves experienced violence and other trauma that they are struggling to address without support. The research is clear that suspended and expelled students who are subjected are far more likely than their peers to drop out of school and enter the juvenile delinquency system, at great cost to the state. A recent economic study followed a cohort of high school students and found that, after controlling for common dropout factors, suspensions lowered the state graduation rate by seven percentage points, which is associated with a cost of $2.7 billion per cohort. Research also shows that alternatives to suspension and expulsion – such as Restorative Practices, tiered interventions through Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and social emotional learning – reduce suspensions, improve behavior, and improve academic outcomes.