LOS ANGELES – To be suspended from school used to entail getting into a fight or bringing a weapon or drugs onto campus, but nowadays they're just as likely to occur for talking back to a teacher, cursing, walking into class late or even student eye rolling.
Critics of suspensions say that the strict rules are disproportionately used against black and Latino boys and alienates the students who need most to stay in school. More than 40 percent of suspensions in California are for "willful defiance," or any behavior that disrupts class, and some say it's a catchall that needs to be eliminated because it's overused for trivial offenses.
"It's so broad it's not useful," said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president and chief executive of the nonprofit South Los Angeles Community Coalition. "You can't quite define what it means, what it doesn't mean."
Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) earlier this year introduced a bill to remove willful defiance as a reason for suspension and expulsion. His bill, AB 2242, would replace that category with specific behaviors such as harassment, threats, intimidation, creating substantial disorder or a hostile environment.
Willful defiance is coming under scrutiny as attention focuses on whether "zero tolerance" discipline policies instituted in many schools in the 1990s are working, especially for minority students. A report by the U.S. Department of Education's civil rights office last fall found vast disparities in the use of suspensions and expulsions against students of color.
Black students comprise 18 percent of public school enrollment nationwide, but 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions, the report stated.
School discipline even caught the attention of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, who addressed the issue in her State of the Judiciary speech to the Legislature in March, saying she was alarmed to find out that 700,000 suspensions and expulsions were handed down statewide last year.
"You might ask, 'Why is school discipline a justice issue?' The answer is obvious — when children are not in school, studies show they are at risk of entering the juvenile justice system," she said. "Studies show that one suspension triples the likelihood of a juvenile justice contact within that year."
Most school districts across the country stipulate defiance or insubordination as a cause for discipline. The key is the punishment meted out for the offense.
Baltimore City Public Schools has managed to slash the number of suspensions from nearly 27,000 in 2003-04 to just over 11,000 in 2010-11 after extensively revising its code of conduct and disciplinary policies. A suspension for defiance is now only given if it's a repeated offense, according to district data.
In California, defiance is a key reason behind high suspension rates, particularly for black and Latino students. A University of California Los Angeles report found students of color are most often suspended for infractions relating to disrespect, defiance and disobedience.
"There's a bit of profiling that goes on, particularly with low-income African-American and Latino boys," Harris-Dawson said. "A white girl can scream and slam books on the desk and not be seen as threatening, but a black boy can do half of that and it can be taken as 'he's going to hit me.'"
For teachers, sending troublemakers to the principal's office is a necessary tool to maintain classroom discipline, said Frank Wells, Southern California representative of the California Teachers Association, who said he has not noticed an excessive use of defiance and the union has to remind teachers they can use that.
But if statistics show a disproportionate use of defiance against certain groups of students, it could indicate a cultural gap. "It's something that should be studied," he said. "But we hate to limit teachers' authority to discipline."
South Los Angeles high school senior Brett Williams said he feels teachers use defiance as an excuse not to hear the students' side. "It's like sit down and shut up," the 18-year-old said. "You're not even able to tell your story. That to them is being defiant."
A few weeks ago, Williams was not wearing his uniform shirt under a sweater after playing basketball. Told to go to the dean's office, he resisted because he was putting on his shirt and wanted to remain for the lesson. He was threatened with suspension for being defiant and sent home.
When he returned to school the next day, he had a run-in with the dean and was told he was disrespectful, rude and defiant and was sent home again.
"It escalated into two days of missing school over a uniform shirt," said Williams, adding he's determined to graduate in June despite the problems. "You can't even be treated fairly so what's the point of going to school. That's the way they made me feel."
At Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, administrators started taking a different approach to discipline after seeing a record 600 suspensions in 2004.
The 2,700-student school now has a progressive discipline system where teachers and counselors intervene before a situation reaches the dean and principal. Parents are called and offenders ordered to write apology letters, apologize publicly, or spend lunchtime in the dean's office to realize the consequences of their behavior.
Defiance is no longer a cause for suspension.
"We took the suspension quick-trigger off the menu," said Assistant Principal Ramiro Rubalcaba, who used to have students in his office for everything from chewing gum to sleeping to coming to class without a pencil. "It was the big umbrella."
Teachers, who initially balked at the new disciplinary approach, are given extra training in classroom management if they report a lot of student behavior problems.
Last year, the school had only one suspension and has had only one so far this year. With that record, Garfield has become a model for discipline reform, and is now regularly visited by administrators from other high schools and even state lawmakers.
When seniors Jamie Rodríguez and Janaye Esparza got into a fight during drill team practice earlier this year — grounds for suspension at most high schools — their parents were called in, they were banned from the team for a week, spent lunch in the dean's office and were counseled on getting along.
"We learned to keep our distance and respect each other," Janaye said. "We ignore our differences."
Both girls said the toughest punishment was sitting out drill team. "That was hard," Jamie said. "It was something I really worked for."
Rubalcaba said he's found that students respond more to the removal of privileges than being sent home to watch TV.
"They like being suspended on Thursday so they have a three-day weekend," he said. "Suspending is now the last option."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.