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Bills in California Legislature aim to address school discipline

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California State Assembly.

Several bills are being heard by the state Legislature in Sacramento this week that aim to address problems with school discipline.

These include AB 2242, which seeks to reduce out-of-school suspensions for students under the category of "willful defiance," an often very subjective classification that includes behavior such as failing to bring materials to class, not paying attention or talking back. The bill would limit the use of such suspensions and instead have students sent to an in-school supervised suspension classroom.

More than 40 percent of suspensions in California are given out for "willful defiance," said Laura Faer, education rights director for the nonprofit Public Counsel. And because it is so subjective, it often has a much greater impact on students of color. A report released today by UCLA's The Civil Rights Project found that a black male student with disabilities was most likely to be suspended from the classroom in California compared to other students.

"[Willfull defiance is] really a big umbrella and really a catchall for most types of behavior," Faer said. "So what we want to do is give teachers and administrators these evidence-based tools to use instead."

SB 1235 would require schools that suspend more than 25 percent of their students to adopt evidence-based, school-wide behavior strategies that work to improve the school climate and reduce that suspension rate.

Faer said the "restorative justice approach" is a common sense solution that avoids the more drastic measure of kicking a kid out of the classroom. Often students who are suspended are already having trouble in school and are behind, they often also have issues at home that are causing them to act out.

"When a child misbehaves in a classroom, it's super easy to kick them out, but what we have found is it doesn't work. The child does not learn how to behave better, and actually comes back worse...You haven't addressed the root causes of the problem," Faer said. "When they're kicked out, they're actually happy about it, they're home, away from school, which is a hard place for them, so we're actually encouraging them to drop out."

A third bill, AB 2145, works to create accurate data reporting on California school discipline so as to determine what is or is not working.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye addressed some of these issues in her State of the Judiciary address in March.

"I see a looming problem out there. If we aren't responsible for our youth, if we don't return them to school, if we don't keep them in school, if we don't help them beome productive citizens, we are paving the way for entry not only into the juvenile justice system, but the adult justice system."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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