A Will and A Way

Since 2014, MPUSD’s suspension rates have dropped 44 percent. In the recent changes to disciplinary codes, board member Jon Hill, pictured, cast the single dissenting vote. 

New backpack? Check. New pencils? Check. New suspension codes? That could be coming too. As local students enter the school year, some will be met with a new disciplinary code, specifically around suspension.

Currently, teachers and administrators cannot suspend students in kindergarten through third grade for “willful defiance,” defined as behavior that defies school rules and authority. A pending bill is looking to expand the ban to eighth-graders. (Suspension for things like selling drugs, fighting or bringing a weapon to campus are still enforced.)

Authored by State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, SB 419 is reigniting a battle to decrease suspension rates because of willful defiance. In 2012, then-governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have banned K-12 suspensions due to willful defiance. He signed the K-3 ban in 2014, but vetoed a K-8 expansion in 2018.

While the former governor may not have seen the logic in taking away a disciplinary tool away from school staff, local school boards see a lot of sense in it. The push for decreasing suspensions isn’t just a numbers game. These types of suspensions – as well as removal from a classroom – have been overused in some districts and are disproportionately directed toward black and Latino students. More suspensions means more students end up missing instructional time, falling behind their peers.

According to the California Department of Education, suspensions in 2016-2017 dropped dramatically among these subgroups compared to 2011-2012, two years before the K-3 ban was signed into law. Over that time period, the proportion of black students who were suspended went from 13.7 percent to 9.8 percent. For Latinos, that rate went from 6.1 to 3.7 percent. (For white students, it went from 4.7 percent to 3.2 percent.) Suspensions in total decreased by 46.2 percent.

While the statewide legislation hasn’t been finalized, some districts have already taken up the matter. Salinas Union High School District, a majority Latino district, for instance, has enforced a ban on K-12 suspensions for willful defiance since 2015.

“It was so important for our board to become majority Latino – with Phillip Tabera, Sandra Ocampo and Kathryn Ramirez – because these kinds of discussions could finally happen,” says boardmember Anthony Rocha, who was a student when the policy was implemented.

Four years later, Monterey Peninsula Unified is following suit. MPUSD’s board voted 5-1 on June 26 to ban K-12 suspensions for willful defiance.

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“The concern is that it can be so subjective: More often students of color are being perceived and suspended at higher rates for willful defiance, perhaps because of implicit bias,” MPUSD Superintendent PK Diffenbaugh says.

Diffenbaugh notes that the change means one less tool for teachers to sort out an unruly classroom. “There’s certainly more training now,” he says.

Like SUHSD, MPUSD has been emphasizing restorative justice practices and mental health training, which allow teachers and counselors to identify signs of troubled students. “It could be something at home or in their personal lives, and unfortunately that can play out in classrooms,” Diffenbaugh says.

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Marielle Argueza is a staff writer and calendar editor for the Weekly. She covers education, immigration and culture. Additionally, she covers the areas of Marina and South County. She occasionally writes about food and runs the internship program.

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