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The High Cost of Punishing Kids For “Willful Defiance” – by Matthew Fleischer

September 13th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

California schools suspend more kids than they graduate
—a bleak fact that policy makers have finally started to take seriously.

That is why on Monday of this week, the California Department of Education, the California Attorney General and The California Endowment joined together to sponsor a statewide hearing in order to publicly explore the reasons behind our state’s high rate of school suspensions, and to discuss possible alternatives to the harsh discipline practices that are now being shown to do great damage to vast numbers of our kids.

WitnessLA’s Matt Fleischer attended Monday’s hearing and came back with this report.



By Matthew Fleischer

Willful defiance” is a phrase you may not have heard before. But if Monday’s statewide hearing on alternative discipline policies in schools, held at the Mark Taper Auditorium in LA’ downtown library, and attended by students, teachers, local and state policy wonks, plus U.S. Department of Education Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn H. Ali, is any indication, you’ll be hearing those words quite a bit more in the months and years to come.

The term loosely refers to any kind of perceived insubordination or misbehavior by a student, directed towards a teacher or administrator. I say loosely, because there is no standardized formal definition for the term—despite the fact that it’s far and away the leading cause for suspension among the 400,000 students who are sent home for misbehavior annually in the state of California. Students at the hearing told stories of willful defiance been applied towards infractions as minor as swearing in gym class, to a student who refused to wear his collared uniform shirt on a sweltering day, to a transgendered student refusing administrators’ orders to dress in what they considered a gender appropriate fashion. ß

At the hearing, Louis Freedberg, Executive Director of Ed Source, noted the results of his organization’s survey of administrators of 315 schools across California, representing 4.1 million students. 70 percent of these administrators had no formal definition for the term “willful defiance,” despite it being far and away the leading cause for suspension in their schools. In other words, the single biggest factor in the suspension of California students is nearly always meted out in a completely arbitrary fashion. Neither students, teachers, nor administrators have a firm handle on how to consistently and fairly apply punishment.

When you can’t figure out what exactly a student did wrong, you call it ‘defiance,’” former Garfield High School assistant principal Ramiro Rubalcaba told me at the hearing. Rubalacaba is one of several Garfield administrators who, in 2007, began radically altering the discipline culture of the East L.A. school. In 2004, Garfield suspended 600 students. This year, only one was sent home.

We have effectively ended suspensions at Garfield,” says Rubalcaba. “And as a result, we saw our Academic Performance Index (API) scores go up by 75 points.”

Indeed, although it may sound somewhat counterintuitive on first bounce, initial data from an ongoing UCLA study seems to suggest that suspending problem students does little to promote a healthier educational environment in schools. By engaging troublemakers instead of ostracizing them, the performance of the entire school receives a boost. Tia Martinez, co-author of a preliminary UCLA report on suspension in education, surveyed four schools across California that saw the biggest drops in suspension rates from 2008-2012. All four schools saw tremendous boosts in educational performance.

If you eliminate suspensions and do nothing else, you don’t see any improvement,” says Martinez. “But in conjunction with strategies like peer courts, you see a marked improvement.”

Martinez cautions, however, that further study is needed to bolster the first round of her findings.

This is not a definitive study. It’s simply a series of interesting stories that merit further examination. What we can say with certainty, however, is that high suspension rates do not correspond with academic achievement. Even when you control for different demographics.”

Of course the issue of suspensions isn’t merely about test scores. Students who are suspended are far more likely to fall behind in their schoolwork and risk dropping out. And high school dropouts are far more likely to find themselves enmeshed in the criminal justice system.

Data bears this assertion out. African American men are four times more likely to be imprisoned then their white counterparts. Likewise, African-American students are nearly 3.5 more likely than white students to face suspension.

One community activist in attendance said African-American students were being so alienated and removed from school life due to willful defiance suspension regimes, that he went so far as to call for a Plessy versus Furguson “separate but equal” approach to establish a specific set of standards for dealing with black students.

You can’t look at those numbers without outrage,” Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Education Ali said at the hearing.

When I caught up with Ali after the hearing, she expressed a deep concern that “willful defiance” infractions may be being meted out in violation of African American and other students of color’s civil rights. She would not, however, go as far as calling for overarching federal intervention in the matter.

You don’t want the federal government subverting local discretion,” she said, noting that the term “willful defiance” could just as easily be altered to “bad behavior” or “insubordination.” Instead, the federal government plans to collect as much data as possible so that state and local school officials can create best practices for handling discipline. Data compiled by the feds currently accounts for race, class, gender and ethnicity. Ali, echoing concerns of LBGT education advocates at the meeting, said she hoped data on sexual orientation would soon be added to the mix–pending an authorizing vote in Congress.

It should be noted that talk of easing suspension rates is not to minimize the safety threat students and school staff potentially face from other students. Anyone caught bringing a weapon to school needs to be disciplined. But if the goal of suspensions is to correct bad behavior, then the data presented on Monday shows that notion is failing California’s students miserably.


Several bills that begin to address this and other school punishment issues are sitting on the governor’s desk as I type. We’ll keep you up to date on their fate.


Still internet compromised up here in West Glacier, thus the single news topic today.

Posted in Education, juvenile justice, LAUSD, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 3 Comments »

3 Responses

  1. Morning Read: Zimmer Revising - LA School Report Says:

    [...] Defiance: the all-purpose word that drives kids out of school Witness LA: Initial data from an ongoing UCLA study seems to suggest that suspending problem students does little to promote a healthier educational environment in schools. By engaging troublemakers instead of ostracizing them, the performance of the entire school receives a boost. [...]

  2. sucks Says:

    I never got suspended – but then again, among many other things, I was brought up to follow the Golden Rule, to know right from wrong and to do what was right, to behave properly, to respect my elders and authority figures, to not cheat, to not steal, to not lie, and to take responsibility for my own actions. Most of my peers never got suspended either – for the same reasons.

    You may have some asinine suspensions here and there but I’d be willing to bet the farm that the vast majority of those suspended merited the suspension.

    I’ve long maintained that I’ve got about half the discipline, work ethic, and intelligence of my late father who emigrated here with $500 in his pocket and was a research physicist with a phd at the time of his passing. Overall, in my not so humble opinion, each generation after mine has gotten progressively worse.

    The stupid, idiotic, and criminal elements among us procreate like crazy. The intelligent, common sense, and decent elements don’t.

    We cater to the stupid, empower the criminal, allow the illegal and illegitimate, revere the useless, encourage non-conformity, and people wonder why our society is going to hell in a handbasket?

    Just because a large number of people, including kids, is doing a certain thing or acting a certain way does NOT make it “Right”, “Legal”, “Acceptable”, or “Good” – EVEN IF JUST ABOUT EVERYONE IS DOING IT!

  3. World full of idiots Says:

    What a horrible idea. Removing tools from teachers in order to control students. Willful defiance is a phrase that every parent knows. Article is biased and obviously not written by someone who has multiple kids.

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