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California law bans suspensions for talking back to teachers

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law disallowing teachers to suspend students for defiant behaviors.

SACRAMENTO, California — California's elementary and middle school students won't be suspended for things like falling asleep in class or talking back to the teacher under a bill signed by the state's governor.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday he had signed a law banning public and charter school officials from suspending students for "willful defiance," a broad category that includes disrupting class or willfully defying teachers.

California banned these types of suspensions for students up to third grade beginning in 2015. The law Newsom signed permanently bans these suspensions for grades four and five and temporarily restricts them for grades six through eight until 2025.

"We want the teacher to be able to teach their class and not have disruptive students, but we also want to minimize these suspensions," said bill author Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley. "The more a child is suspended, the more likely they are to do bad in school and just do bad overall."

RELATED: Modesto City Schools' intervention centers a 'loophole' for recent suspensions, teacher says

LaShanya Breazell saw just how detrimental suspension can be. Her son LaVontae was suspended from Oak Park Prep three times while he was a seventh grader. She said her son was once suspended for an altercation between himself and another student during a basketball game even though LaVontae's classmates said he wasn't the aggressor. The other student was not suspended, according to Breazell.  

"Every time there was an issue he would either be sent home, suspended, or sent out of the classroom," Breazell said. "It battered down his morale. He would ask me why he was out of school. His grades were horrible. He wasn’t able to keep up with the lessons."

Breazell said LaVontae was also sent out of the classroom for trivial things like asking too many questions or not having a pencil.

"I lost count of how many times he was sent home or out of the classroom. It was very frustrating and stressful," she said.

Eventually, Breazell transferred her son to another school where she learned that LaVontae needed smaller classroom sizes and more one-on-one attention from teachers.

The new law takes effect July 1 of next year. Teachers can still remove students from the classroom for willful defiance, but they could not be suspended.

"We have to make sure the term willful defiance is defined in a way that everybody understands what it means," Breazell said.  

When California banned willful suspensions up to third grade, suspensions fell by 30,000 in the first year. Since 2011, suspensions for willful defiance have dropped 82%, according to a legislative analysis of the proposal.

But data from the California Department of Education shows a disparity in who is getting suspended. Black students, while accounting for 5.6 percent of enrollment, made up 15.6 percent of all willful defiance suspensions in the 2017-18 school year. White students accounted for 20.2 percent of willful defiance suspensions while making up 23.2 percent of enrollment.

Breazell said she believes the suspension rate for black children will decrease once the law is implemented.  

"I guarantee you that the suspension level will fall and more of our babies will be graduating like they are supposed to, like they are entitled to," she said.

As for LaVontae, he will be graduating next year from Sava Charter.

Lawmakers and school officials have been debating the issue for some time. Former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed similar bills twice, once in 2012 and again last year, writing in a veto message: "Teachers and principals are on the front lines educating our children and are in the best position to make decisions about order and discipline in the classroom."

Officials with the California Charter Schools Development Center (CSDC) have shown concern over the passage of the bill.

Executive Director Eric Premack says while the CSDC are generally supportive of policies that reduce unnecessary suspensions and expulsions but says the issue is not one size fits all.

"Some charter schools, however, serve high-risk populations and/or offer unique programs and services where strong disciplinary practices are vital to student and staff safety," Premack said. "These include, but are not limited to schools where students regularly use dangerous tools (e.g., chain saws, axes, etc.), operate heavy equipment, drive trucks, etc."

Premack said while SB 419 is well-intended, he argues that it imposes a “one-size-fits all” disciplinary standards that are not a fit for all schools in all circumstances.

This year, Skinner noted groups like the Association of California School Administrators supported the bill.



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