Assembly student suspension bill fits newest pediatric advice

A California lawmaker is back this session with another bill aimed at limiting school suspensions or expulsions.

But this time around, Democratic Assemblyman Roger Dickinson's AB 420 is backed by further evidence and opinion - including that of the American Academy of Pediatrics - that kicking kids out of school is ineffective, counterproductive and contributes to the risk of a student dropping out of school.

In a policy statement released Monday, the AAP - an organization of 60,000 primary care pediatricians, specialists and pediatric surgeons - urges its members to advocate for policy changes that support greater focus on prevention strategies and alternatives to out-of-school suspension and expulsion.

Research continues to demonstrate that so-called zero-tolerance policies and out-of-school suspension and expulsion that are used too readily are ineffective deterrents to inappropriate behavior and are harmful and counterproductive to the student, the family, the school district, and the community as a whole, both short- and long-term," the report's authors wrote.

Originally intended to promote safe school environments by decreasing violent behavior and criminal activities, such as drug-trafficking and bringing weapons onto campus, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions have evolved into a means of addressing a variety of student infractions, including drug and alcohol violations, verbal disrespect to teachers and even truancy.

In an effort to curb unnecessary suspensions, Dickinson's bill - a follow-up to similar legislation that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed last fall -would eliminate the use of willful defiance' as a reason to suspend a student in grades K through eight.

The bill also would limit the suspension of high schoolers based on willful defiance by requiring school administrators to use alternative forms of correction, such as restorative justice programs or positive behavior interventions.

Under the proposal, a student in grades nine to 12 could only be suspended - not expelled - after a third offense in a school year, provided other means of correction were attempted.

"Kids who have been suspended or expelled are five times more likely to drop out and 11 times more likely to turn to crime," Dickinson, chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development, said in a statement.

"We must address behavioral issues with alternative means of correction so we can keep young people in school and on track to graduate, and out of the criminal justice system."

That position is echoed by the new policy of the pediatricians: "The AAP does not support the concept of zero tolerance for the developing child. The AAP maintains that out-of-school suspension and expulsion are counterproductive to the intended goals, rarely if ever are necessary, and should not be considered as appropriate discipline in any but the most extreme and dangerous circumstances, as determined on an individual basis rather than as a blanket policy."

Under current law, students can be suspended or recommended for expulsion from school for 24 different reasons, including willful defiance, defined as "disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority of school staff."

Considered by some to be too subjective in nature, willful defiance offenses could include anything from failing to turn in homework, not paying attention, refusing to take off a coat or hat, or swearing in class, according to Dickinson.

The Sacramento assemblyman points to statistics from the California Department of Education as evidence that too many students are being kept out of school for relatively minor infractions. CDE estimates that willful defiance was identified as grounds for 42 percent of all suspensions in 2010-11, equaling 2,200 students per school day - the highest rate in the nation.

Because research shows that students of color are disproportionately suspended and expelled for low-level, willful defiance-type offenses, Dickinson believes his bill would help improve educational outcomes for these pupils and narrow the achievement gap between them and their white peers, who are suspended at much lower rates.

Dickinson's 2012 legislation proposed eliminating from the Ed Code willful defiance as a means to suspend or expel K-12 students.

In vetoing AB 2242, Brown wrote, "I cannot support limiting the authority of local school leaders, especially at a time when budget cuts have greatly increased class sizes and reduced the number of school personnel."

"It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom," the governor said in his veto message.

Dickinson's newest proposal continues to allow severe penalties, including expulsion, for more serious offenses such as acts of force or violence on another person, harassment, threats or intimidation.

In California alone, Dickinson reports, more than 750,000 students are suspended per year - more than the number who graduate.

"We want to make sure students are supported and in school," Ted Lempert, president of Children Now - a backer of AB 2242 - said in a statement. "When students are acting out or disruptive, removal from school should be the remedy of last resort."

To read the text of AB 420, go to http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/13-14/bill/asm/ab_0401-0450/ab_420_bill_20130215_introduced.html

To read the AAP policy statement, go to http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/02/20/peds.2012-3932.full.pdf+html

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