Los Angeles Unified has become the first school district in the state to ban defiance as grounds for suspension.
In a 5-2 vote that was met with cheers, the school board banned suspensions for defiant students, directing officials to use alternative disciplinary practices instead.
The action comes amid mounting national concern that removing students from school is imperiling their academic achievement and disproportionately harming minority students, particularly African Americans.
"Now we'll have a better chance to stay in school and become something," said Luis Quintero, 14, a student at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles. He attended the board meeting along with dozens of other students and community activists who have been pushing the proposal by board members Monica Garcia and Nury Martinez.
But the vote came after an impassioned discussion over whether the proposal would give a "free pass" to students and shield them from the consequences of misbehavior. Board member Marguerite LaMotte, who voted no, told students that they needed to pay for their mistakes, while member Richard Vladovic said no student had the right to disrupt learning opportunities for classmates.
"I'm not going to give you permission to go crazy and think there are no consequences," LaMotte said.
Board member Tamar Galatzan voted no without comment, while Vladovic supported it as an experiment, saying he would be "the first to stop it" if it proved disruptive to learning. Garcia, Martinez, Steve Zimmer and Bennett Kayser supported the proposal.
The action marks a decisive step back from "zero tolerance" policies that swept the nation after the Columbine school shooting in Colorado more than a decade ago.
The proposal would ban suspensions of students for "willful defiance," an offense criticized as a subjective catch-all for such behavior as refusing to take off a hat, turn off a cellphone or failing to wear a school uniform. The offense accounted for 48% of 710,000 suspensions issued in California in 2011-12, prompting state and local efforts to restrict its use in disciplinary actions.
School officials will instead focus on positive behavior incentives, which have reduced office discipline referrals by up to 50% in 13,000 schools using them nationwide, according to Fix School Discipline, an initiative of the Public Counsel Law Center of Los Angeles.