Schoolkids navigate a lot of side roads: each teacher’s way of grading, which classmates get prickly if jostled, how loud of a whisper gets a check on the board. But the walkway to the principal’s office is supposed to be wide and well-marked with warnings: no hitting, no knives, no drugs.
Those rules, everyone knows. Less clear are the standards by which each grown-up defines “willful defiance,” a legal category accounting for 42 percent of all suspensions in 2012-13, according to state records. Statistics also show defiance discipline falls hardest on students of color.
“If you’re an African American boy, you are three and a half to four times more likely to be suspended out of school,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento. And while the education code establishes specific reasons for suspensions, such as selling drugs or bullying, “willful defiance is like the catch-all. It’s anything else.”
A new revision to the state Education Code authored by Dickinson will take the teeth out of the willful defiance law, prohibiting its use to suspend young children or expel anyone. Assembly Bill 420 passed both chambers by large margins and was signed into law Sept. 27. From this region, only state Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, and Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals (Madera County), voted against it.
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Chewing gum, eating in class, refusing to talk to a staff member and cussing all are defiance transgressions under the Modesto City Schools conduct code. A third offense of any of them used to call for a one-day suspension, but last year the district shifted toward more proactive behavior fixes, said Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson.
Outside the bad-attitude realm, offenses lumped into the category include pulling a (false) fire alarm, forging notes from home, slipping off campus during lunch or getting past school Internet blocks in class.
“Our original conduct code gave very specific steps,” Johnson said. “Principals did not feel they had any leeway to use informed judgment. We’ve moved more to a policy of counseling the student or helping direct the student.”
The Modesto numbers are trending down. In 2011-12, 2.9 percent of elementary and junior high school students in the district were suspended at least once for defiance, by the district’s hand-calculated count. That dropped to 2.3 percent the following year and 2.1 percent last year. Most of those were junior high students.
In kindergarten through third grade, where suspensions no longer will be allowed, the numbers stayed fairly flat: 1.8 percent in 2011-12, then 1.1 percent and then 1.3 percent last year. Like the statewide numbers, young black children in Modesto are suspended at higher rates. Because the numbers are very low, the difference is not statistically valid, but it is consistent across all three years.
“Ethnicities that have a low enrollment number may have a high percent that inaccurately portrays a picture. For example, in 2013-14, our K-3 African American students suspended for defiance (3.1 percent) were twice as high as our white students (1.5 percent). However, the actual numbers are six African American students and 19 white students,” Johnson wrote in an emailed response to Modesto Bee follow-up questions.
“Modesto City Schools remains committed to keeping our students where they belong – in school, learning,” she said.
“We know that there are kids that come with more readiness skills,” Johnson said. Those include the readiness to stand in line, wait for turns, answer promptly, stay on task.
The new system works to lay out clear expectations and address problems the children may have outside of school.
“The first thing is to identify school rules that every kid knows. You teach those rules. You post those rules,” said Mark Herbst, senior director of educational services for the district. “It doesn’t mean kids won’t use profanity or get in a fight, but (have) consistent expectations, so everyone’s talking the same language.”
If a child does not respond to simple correction, a staff member is assigned to check in regularly with the student as an informal mentor.
“Through the recession, we’ve seen an increase in the amount of social, emotional needs kids are coming in with, and at a younger age,” Herbst said.
The district has instituted positive reinforcements for good behavior, added mental health services and grief counseling and is instituting a system of restorative justice at five schools to better resolve student conflicts. “Beyond any punitive measures, there has to be reconciliation,” Herbst said. “There has to be conversation.”