Madison Ruppert, Contributor
One might think that school suspensions are reserved for serious student offenses like bringing drugs or weapons to school or perhaps fighting.
Unfortunately, that is far from the case nowadays in our society which increasingly criminalizes students for engaging in childish behavior, which obviously should be expected, to a certain degree, from children.
Students are now just as likely to get suspended from school for so-called “willful defiance” or any other activity which could be considered disruptive, like rolling eyes, coming to class late, or talking back to a teacher.
According to some critics, these tactics are disproportionately used against black and Latino males, thus alienating the people who most need to stay in school. They also charge that it is actually a catch-all term which can be applied to even the most trivial of offenses.
“It’s so broad it’s not useful” Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the president and chief executive of the non-profit South Los Angeles Community Coalition, said to CBS.
“You can’t quite define what it means, [and] what it doesn’t mean,” Harris-Dawson added. Indeed this is quite accurate and unfortunately has become a hallmark of how our government operates in the modern day.
They purposefully make everything as ambiguous and flexible as humanly possible, thus allowing for legislation to be exploited and used in many more situations than it might otherwise be used.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2012 is a great example, with its wildly vague definitions which allow many people to be indefinitely detained by the military.
Earlier this year, a California State Assemblyman by the name of Roger Dickinson introduced AB 2242, a bill which would completely remove “willful defiance” as a reason for both suspension and expulsion.
Dickinson’s legislation would replace that reason with much more specific behaviors like harassment, threats, intimidation, along with the creation of a hostile environment or substantial disorder.
Obviously, all of these designations are significantly more specific than the hard-to-define label of “willful defiance.”
This is being scrutinized along with the so-called “zero tolerance” policies in place in many schools since the 1990s, with a focus on how they are affecting minority students.
A U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office put out a report last year which evidenced a major gap in how suspensions were used against so-called “students of color.”
This disparity is evidenced by the fact that 18% of public school students in America are black, while 35% of suspensions and 39% of expulsions involve black students.
This is becoming such a prominent issue that the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, addressed it in her State of the Judiciary speech to the California legislature in March.
She noted that she was alarmed by the fact that the state ordered 700,000 suspensions and students just last year.
“You might ask, ‘Why is school discipline a justice issue?’ The answer is obvious – when students are not in school, studies show that they are at risk of entering the juvenile justice system,” she stated.
“Studies show that one suspension triples the likelihood of a juvenile justice contact within that year,” Chief justice Cantil-Sakauye added.
In other words, the state made tripled the likelihood of an encounter with the juvenile justice system 700,000 times in a single year.
While this is obviously a shocking statistic, most school districts in the United States also have “defiance” or “insubordination” as a cause for discipline, they just differ on how they punish alleged offenders.
For instance, public schools in Baltimore cut suspensions from almost 27,000 in the 2003-2004 school year to 11,000 in the 2010-2011 school year.
They did this through a large-scale revision of their code of conduct and disciplinary guidelines, leading to a suspension for defiance only being handed out if it is a repeated offense.
A report from the University of California Los Angeles showed that “students of color” are the most likely to be suspended for allegedly disrespecting, defying or disobeying someone in school.
According to Harris-Dawson, this can largely be blamed on profiling, although considering the way it is framed, it sounds a lot more likely a textbook case of racism.
“There’s a bit of profiling that goes on, particularly with low-income African-American and Latino boys,” Harris-Dawson said. “A white girl can scream and slam books on the desk and not be seen as threatening, but a black boy can do half of that and it can be taken as ‘he’s going to hit me.’”
If that is not a blatant case of racism, I’m not sure what is.
Frank Wells, a Southern California representative of the California Teachers Association, on the other hand, defends these practices.
He claims that sending alleged troublemakers to the principal’s office is a necessary tool to maintain discipline in the classroom, adding that he has not noticed an excessive use of defiance and that the union has to actually remind teachers that they have the ability to use “willful defiance” as a reason to discipline a student.
This assertion is hilariously imbecilic and patently false, showing that Wells is either simply choosing to lie or he wildly ignorant and unaware of the statistics be it by choice or circumstance.
“It’s something that should be studied,” Wells said of the statistics demonstrating a disproportionate use of “willful defiance” against certain groups. “But we hate to limit teachers’ authority to discipline,” he added.
Students, on the other hand, see it as a way for teachers to silence students and not allow them to voice their opinions and concerns.
Brett Williams, a senior at South Los Angeles high school, told CBS, “It’s like sit down and shut up. You’re not even able to tell your story. That to them is being defiant.”
Williams recounted a story where he was not wearing his uniform shirt under a sweater after playing a game of basketball a few weeks ago.
He was ordered to go to the dean’s office, but he said that he was putting on his shirt and wanted to stay in class for the rest of the lesson.
He was then sent home and threatened with suspension for being defiant. If Williams’ account is accurate, it sounds more like he was sent home for trying to stay in class and learn.
Even more ludicrous is that he was sent home again the next day after a “run-in” with the dean, after which he was told that he was being disrespectful, rude and defiant.
“It escalated into two days of missing school over a uniform shirt,” Williams said.
Despite his alleged defiance problems, Williams said that he is determined to graduate in June.
“You can’t even be treated fairly so what’s the point of going to school. That’s the way they made me feel,” Williams said, mirroring the disillusionment many students feel when facing the now monstrous American public school system.
This is obviously not the only way that kids discipline can be handled, as other schools have already implemented different systems which show positive results.
Take the East Los Angeles high school Garfield High School for example. There the school administration took a different approach after witnessing a whopping 600 suspensions in 2004.
They now have a system where both teachers and counselors intervene in a matter before the issue ever reaches the principal and dean.
The 2,700 student strong school now contacts parents and orders offenders to write apology letters, apologize publicly, or spend their lunch time in the dean’s office to consider the consequences of their actions.
Thanks to this new system, they have completely removed defiance as a cause for suspension.
“We took the suspension quick-trigger off the menu,” Assistant Principal Ramiro Rubalcaba said.
Rubalcaba noted that before this was in place he would have students ordered to see him for everything from forgetting to bring a pencil to class to chewing gum to napping.
While teachers initially balked at the decision, the school system now offers them additional classroom management training if they continue to report a great deal of student behavior issues.
The system appears to be working thus far as they had only a single suspension last year and one so far this year as well.
Garfield High School’s model has become an example of how discipline in public schools can be reformed to great effect and now administrators from other schools visit regularly. Even some state legislators have made time to pay Garfield a visit.
An example of how this model works came up earlier this year when two senior girls, Jamie Rodriguez and Janaye Esparza, got into a fight during drill team practice, which would likely get them suspended at any other school.
Both Rodriguez and Esparza’s parents were called in, they were suspended from their team for a week and forced to spend lunch in the dean’s office along with getting counseling on how to get along with each other.
“We learned to keep our distance and respect each other,” Esparza said. “We ignore our differences.”
Both Esparza and Rodriguez noted that the worst part of their punishment was being suspended from the team.
“That was hard,” Rodriguez said. “It was something I really worked for.”
Rubalcaba made a phenomenal point by saying that he has noticed that students respond much more to having their privileges removed rather than simply being sent home to watch television or play video games.
“They like being suspended on Thursday so they have a three-day weekend,” he pointed out. “Suspending is now the last option.”
Since this is working so well for Garfield, it seems imbecilic to not follow this model at other high schools.
We have seen that so-called “tough on crime” policies don’t work when it comes to real criminal activity – evidence by the failure of the so-called “three strikes” laws in California – so who in their right mind would think that schools are any different?
It is very saddening to see our children become increasingly criminalized, often for wholly innocuous actions. Maybe if more schools follow Garfield’s model we won’t see so many children being locked up and abused in our public school system, as all this is doing is creating a new generation of customers for the private prison complex.
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This article first appeared at End the Lie.