Is ‘Willful Defiance’ Still Grounds for Suspension?

As more educators, administrators and educational experts around the country join the growing chorus of those questioning the effectiveness of suspensions, one school district has already decided to suspend the practice for minor infractions altogether.

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the largest school district in California and the 2nd largest in the nation with 640,000 registered students, recently decided to radically alter how it would respond to behavioral issues in school. This past May, the district school board passed a new resolution that banned the use of suspensions for students guilty of “willful defiance.”

If the term seems a bit murky, that’s because it’s been used to lump together a variety of less severe disciplinary issues—students who talk back to their teachers, students who use their cellphones in class, public displays of affection, or repeated tardiness. Of the more than 700,000 suspensions that were doled out in the state of California during the 2011-2012 school year, almost half—that’s close to 350,000 suspensions—were given out for willful defiance issues.

But one of the more pressing issues, and one that helped propel LAUSD to ultimately make the decision, was the growing number of minority and disabled students who were receiving suspensions—suspensions that tended to fall into the willful defiance category and put students on the fast-track to falling behind their classmates, dropping out of school, or even ending up in jail.

Nancy Franklin, who is the Director of LRE Programs in the Division of Special Education for Los Angeles Unified School District and works with Student Health and Human Services to implement the district’s Discipline Foundation Policy, says that disaggregated suspension data presented a clearer image of how suspensions were working to disenfranchise these populations of students.

“We found that African American students and students with disabilities were more likely to be suspended for misconduct for which there was a lot of administrative discretion in suspending or choosing another alternative,” Franklin says. “The data is compelling and, once reviewed, is a benchmark upon which our Superintendent, Dr. Deasy, built everyone’s understanding of what we needed to stop doing, and supported all of us in directing our attention to more positive ways of working with youth.”

Russell Skiba, Director of the Equity Project and a Professor of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Indiana University, has spent a considerable amount of time examining the racial disparity of suspension rates. Skiba worked with LAUSD in the past to address intervention and response methods that could lower the racial disproportionality of suspensions while creating a positive school climate for all students and educators.

At the “Closing the School Discipline Gap: Research to Policy” symposium in Washington, DC this past April, Skiba presented a research paper with several of his colleagues examining how disciplinary responses lead to out-of-school suspensions. Called “Where Should We Intervene? Contributions of Behavior, Student, and School Characteristics to Suspension and Expulsion,” the report found that suspensions are often determined by a range of factors that are not necessarily tied to the severity of the crime.

“These results indicate that school suspension and expulsion are not simply an inevitable result of student misbehavior, but are rather determined by a complex set of factors, including irrelevant factors such as race, and the school’s principals belief in the necessity of suspension and expulsion,” the report’s summary states. “For racial disparities in particular, these results suggest that a focus, in policy and practice, on changing characteristics of the way schools carry out discipline may be the course most likely to reduce inequality in school suspension and expulsion.”

But while the new policy will help LAUSD equalize the racial disparity of its suspensions, the question of how to discipline these still unruly students becomes an increasingly important issue for the district. Implementing the ban was a controversial decision, and even with the largest school police force in the country—340 police officers and 147 school safety officers monitor the classrooms and hallways—disciplinary issues and security remain very real and looming priorities for the district’s educators and students. If defiant students are no longer going to receive out-of-school suspensions, then how are teachers supposed to discipline them for their disruptive behavior?

As the days tick down to the start of the new school year, LAUSD is preparing to implement a variety of approaches that will replace suspensions for willful defiance. Most notably, the focus is now turning to consequences for disciplinary issues that are instructional and age-appropriate instead of forcing students to spend time away from school. The district is continuing to utilize its Discipline Review, Student Success and school-wide Positive Behavior Support teams of educators and administrators to deal with behavioral issues as they arise. The idea is if the district can effectively understand and combat the culture that causes students to act out, then they can have a greater positive impact on students district-wide.

Franklin cites Garfield High School in Los Angeles, CA as an example of how the new disciplinary approach will benefit all students. Before the school board passed its resolution banning suspensions for willful defiance, a disproportionate number of students with disabilities at the high school were receiving suspensions. Now with the new policy in place, Franklin says that the school is no longer going to suspend students from the campus for minor infractions—which means that the number of suspended students with disabilities is about to plummet.

Instead, teachers and administrators will work with the students to better understand their misbehavior. Programs are being implemented to better welcome students into the school day, while more parent engagement initiatives will be utilized. According to Franklin, the hope is that these programs will allow teachers to better respond to behavioral issues that a normal out-of-school suspension would do little to solve.

“We are not in the business of ‘gotcha,’” says Franklin. “It is our work to help students succeed, and to examine our environment to see how we can best prevent problem behavior.”

And according to Franklin, the new district-wide approach will hopefully have a two-pronged effect: keeping more students in school while giving teachers the tools to better understand and deal with the issues that cause some students to act out.

“Think of it as prevention meets intervention,” Franklin says. “When we say we’re not going to suspend students for willful defiance, that means that we now have to intervene more and work with these students on figuring out why they’re acting out.”