The packed board room erupted in cheers after the 5-2 vote to approve the proposal, which made L.A. Unified the first school district in the state to ban defiance as grounds for suspension. 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 members Marguerite LaMotte told students that they needed to pay for their mistakes, while 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. But as harsh school discipline policies took hold, studies in Texas and elsewhere found that suspensions did not lead to better behavior but were linked to poor academic achievement and run-ins with law enforcement.
Additionally, African Americans are disproportionately affected — accounting for 26% of those suspended in L.A. Unified in 2010-11 although they made up 9% of the student population.
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.
Disruptive students could still be removed from the classroom but they would no longer be sent home. Instead, school officials would be required to keep students on campus and hold them accountable through alternatives shown to be more effective.
Those practices include 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. Another practice that focuses on conflict resolution through repairing the harm done, known as restorative justice, helped one Contra Costa high school reduce suspensions by half last year over the previous year.
Critics, however, object to restrictions on their disciplinary authority. District administrators and teachers have raised questions about whether they will be given the training and time to use the alternative practices.
The proposal was backed by Supt. John Deasy and several nonprofits and community organizations. It marked the latest effort by L.A. Unified to reform school discipline, following a 2007 board directive to establish the positive behavior incentive program in all schools and a heightened effort by Deasy to monitor suspension data. The district has reduced the number of instructional days lost to suspensions — to 26,286 in 2011-12 from 74,765 in 2006-07. But African Americans still are excessively affected.
Deasy told the board that students still will be suspended for violence, drugs, fights and other behavior that threatens others. But he said keeping students out of school for failing to bring material to class and other lesser acts considered defiant could push them out of school and into possible trouble.
"We want to be part of graduating, not incarcerating," students, he said.