LAUSD Board Could Ban Suspensions for ‘Willful Defiance’

Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2013

Damien Valentine knows painfully well about a national phenomenon that is imperiling the academic achievement of minority students, particularly African Americans like himself: the pervasive and disproportionate use of suspensions from school for mouthing off and other acts of defiance.

The Manual Arts Senior High School sophomore has been suspended several times beginning in seventh grade, when he was sent home for a day and a half for refusing to change his seat because he was talking. He said the suspensions never helped him learn to control his behavior but only made him fall further behind.

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But Valentine, who likes chemistry and wants to be a doctor, is determined to change school discipline practices. He has joined a Los Angeles County-wide effort to push a landmark proposal by school board President Monica Garcia that would make L.A. Unified the first school district in California to ban suspensions for willful defiance.

That offense is now widely criticized as an arbitrary catchall for any behavior a teacher finds objectionable, such as repeatedly tapping feet on the floor, refusing to remove a hat or failing to wear the school uniform. It accounted for 48% of 710,000 suspensions issued in California in 2011-12, prompting both state and local efforts to restrict its use in disciplinary actions.

Passage of the resolution, which is scheduled for a vote by the L.A. board of education on Tuesday, would mark a watershed moment in a long battle by community activists against “zero tolerance” policies adopted after the Columbine school shooting in Colorado more than a decade ago.

“This will be a transformational shift,” said Tonna Onyendu of the Liberty Hill Foundation, a Los Angeles nonprofit that is coordinating the campaign for the Garcia proposal, along with more than a dozen other groups. “Instead of punishing students, we’re going to engage them.”

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{snip} Statewide, black students are three times as likely as whites to be suspended; in L.A. Unified, 26% of those suspended in 2010-11 were African Americans although they make up 9% of students.

Such disparities are also evident nationwide, drawing the attention of the federal government. TheĀ U.S. Department of Education‘s civil rights office has launched investigations in North Carolina, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Florida and elsewhere on whether discriminatory suspension policies are violating the civil rights of black students.

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Two years ago, L.A. Supt. John Deasy put a greater focus on gathering data to monitor suspensions and made progress in reducing them part of his own performance review. He said he backs the Garcia resolution, which would eliminate willful defiance as grounds for suspension; instead, alternatives would be used, such as positive incentives and efforts to repair the harm caused known as restorative justice.

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At Augustus Hawkins High School in South L.A., a team of four teachers is leading efforts to bring such restorative justice practices to campus. In one recent case, ninth-grade teacher Katie Rainge-Briggs said she suspended a student for interrupting her and cursing. But rather than leave the problem unresolved, she took up a suggestion by the restorative-justice team leader that she and the student exchange letters. They did, each taking some blame and pledging to better cooperate. Then they shared the letters with the class.

“It was an effective process,” said the student, David Chinchilla, 15. “We talked about what happened and were friends at the end of the day. Without that, it would have been weird between us.”

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