Willful Defiance

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Author: Sathvik Nori is currently a junior at a large, diverse public high school in Northern California. He has interests in political advocacy, social justice, and journalism. He serves as a commissioner for his county’s Juvenile Justice Commission and has campaigned for juvenile justice reforms at the local, state, and national levels.

On July 1st, California Senate Bill 419 will go into law, which ends suspensions for “willful defiance” for students in fourth and fifth grade. The bill also includes a five-year trial of banning suspensions for students in grades six through eight. This bill is an important step in making our school discipline system more equitable. It follows a long trend of reform legislation passed by the California legislature, making California one of the most progressive states in the nation with regards to juvenile justice reform.

Willful defiance is an overly vague area of school discipline. It is defined as “disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority of school staff1.” Due to this broad definition, it is used to target students for everything from talking back to teachers to refusing to take off a hoodie, chewing gum in class, using a cell phone in class, public displays of affection, repeated tardiness, or even forgetting to bring school supplies. Research from UCLA has shown that “willful defiance” has been used to disproportionately target Black students, especially males, with it accounting for over 21% of their suspensions in middle school.2 Nationwide, Black students are already suspended at disproportionate rates to their white counterparts, and taking young kids out of the classroom for periods of time can have devastating consequences on their academic development.

Kids tend to be rambunctious and not always the easiest to control, especially at the elementary and middle school level. However, suspending kids for “willful defiance” is counter-productive. Missed instruction time causes students to fall further behind academically and fuels a pattern of recidivism, making them more likely to misbehave further or get into trouble with the law.3 SB 419 counteracts this trend by focusing on restorative justice efforts that have students take a step back to cool down and reflect on the situation rather than immediately suspending them. Prior to the legislation, many Californian school districts had already eliminated suspensions for “willful defiance” with the biggest district, the Los Angeles unified school district, seeing a 75% drop in suspensions across all categories and an improvement in school culture.4

SB 419 is certainly a step in the right direction, but the “willful defiance” suspensions must be eliminated completely, especially at the high school level. Wearing a hoodie in class, using a cellphone in class, or talking back to a teacher should not be offenses that warrant suspensions. Keeping kids in school is an important step in ending the disparity in education that youth of color face. Overly vague guidelines for offenses that warrant a suspension only contribute to the inequality in our schools that leads to the school to prison pipeline. Therefore, we must continue to pursue legislation that ends this practice, especially at the high school level.

1) http://www.fixschooldiscipline.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/AB-420-Fact-Sheet-Implementation.pdf

2) http://blackmaleinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/GET-OUT-Black-Male-Suspensions-in-California-Public-Schools_lo.pdf

3) https://www.americaspromise.org/opinion/link-between-suspensions-expulsions-and-dropout-rates

4) https://edsource.org/2019/how-l-a-unifieds-ban-on-willful-defiance-suspensions-turned-out-six-years-later/620949