CA State Senate passes bill to amend school suspension policies

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On Monday, the California State Senate passed SB 607 — spearheaded by State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley — which eliminated “willful defiance” as justification for suspension and expulsion of students in grades K-12.

SB 607, titled the “Keep Kids in School Act,” acknowledged that student suspensions can be counterintuitive to a child’s education, but also preserved a teacher’s right to suspend a student on appropriate grounds, according to a press release.

“It’s very important to do our best for our kids to succeed, and so if there are alternatives for discipline, that’s really what we’re trying to get out,” Skinner said. “I was very pleased to see the bill receive bipartisan support. (SB 670) confirms a number of what our larger school districts are already doing.”

Ruth Cusick, a senior staff attorney at Public Counsel, a pro-bono law firm that co-sponsored the bill, said SB 607 was follow-up legislation to AB 420, a bill that removed “willful defiance” as grounds for suspension for K-3 students. Cusick added that SB 607 works towards Public Counsel’s goal of closing the “racial discipline gap” in the educational system where students of color are “punished disproportionately.”

President of the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education Ty Alper said in an email that although the district does not suspend many students for willful defiance, the new bill will help other school districts advance towards progressive disciplinary strategies.

“What is critical, both for Berkeley and other districts, is that we replace traditional exclusionary discipline with meaningful alternatives that gives students, teachers, and administrators the tools to address both the root causes of problematic behavior and to repair the harm done when students misbehave,” Alper said in an email.

Marc Philpart, a senior director at PolicyLink, advocated for suspension and expulsion to be replaced with restorative justice practices, such as trauma-informed care, positive behavior interventions and social and emotional learning. Philpart said he believes progress is most effective when reforms become systemwide and practiced by students, teachers and administrators alike.

Brad Strong, senior director of education policy at Children Now, said he believes suspension and expulsion can “exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline” because such administrative policies send students on a trajectory towards dropping out and other “high-risk” activities.

Strong also said he believes implicit and explicit bias can play a role in racial disparities of suspension rates for students of color, especially when concerning Black and Latinx students.

Philpart added that suspension and expulsion is too costly for schools and school districts because funding for California public schools is partially tied to their number of students in daily attendance.

“Willful defiance is too costly to the students, to the schools and school districts at the end of the day,” Philpart said. “In addition to those losses in revenue, the life of the young person is irreparably altered.”


Contact Francesca Munsayac at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fcfm_dc.