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California Limits Suspensions for 'Willful Defiance'

California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law a bill banning suspensions for "willful defiance" —a catch-all term that can apply to anything from failing to do homework to disrupting classes and that has been heavily criticized for its disproportionate impact on minority students.

Brown signed the bill on Saturday, prohibiting "willful defiance" suspensions in kindergarten through Grade 12, and banning suspensions for students in kindergarten through 3rd grades, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

The bill signing was a turnaround for Brown, who, in 2012, vetoed similar legislation, saying that he did not want to tie the hands of administrators.

"I cannot support limiting the authority of local school leaders, especially at a time when budget cuts have greatly increased class sizes and reduced the number of school personnel," Brown said in his veto message that year, according to The Sacramento Bee.

"The principle of subsidiarity calls for greater, not less, deference to our elected school boards which are directly accountable to the citizenry," the Governor said.

Since then, the tide has turned on out-of-school suspensions, with a national focus on their disparate impact on black and Latino students, particularly for relatively minor infractions.

Ed Week's Evie Blad took an in-depth look at such policies and their impacts in last week's issue.

The Los Angeles Unified School district became the first in the state in May 2013  to ban "willful defiance" as a reason for suspensions. And in February this year, San Francisco followed suit, opting instead to focus on restorative justice practices.

Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, who authored the proposal, said that students who have been suspended were "two times more likely to drop out and five times more likely to turn to crime," according to a statement that was reproduced in the Los Angeles Times.

"Rather than kicking students out of school, we need to keep young people in school on track to graduate, and out of the criminal justice system," he said.

Brown's approval of the bill comes amid ongoing dialogue on how zero-tolerance disciplinary policies affect minority students.

In January, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice released a set of guidelines and guidance for how schools may implement disciplinary policies that do not disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities. In  May, the  Council of State Governments Justice Center released its own report "The School Discipline Consensus Report," which recommended ways to keep students in school and out of the juvenile justice system.

In June, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California Los Angeles released a report on California school suspension rates, showing that while out-of-school suspensions in state schools had declined, the rates were still higher for black and Latino students. The category of "disruption/willful defiance"  accounted for 34 percent of all out-of-school suspensions, according to the report. 

While the elimination of "disruption/ willful defiance" has been praised by many civil rights groups, some educators have been not cheering the new shift in policy, Evie Blad reported on the Rules for Engagement blog in March.

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