‘Willful defiance’ in L.A. schools

Suspension from school seldom makes much sense except in matters of campus safety. Let’s face it: Most students don’t bounce out of bed first thing in the morning celebrating the dawn of yet another school day. So why reward bad behavior with days off?

No one should be surprised, then, that suspension has been found to be fairly ineffective as a disciplinary measure. It’s certainly unhelpful academically; missing classes and falling behind only raise the likelihood of future truancy and dropping out. What’s more, studies show that it disproportionately affects African American and Latino students.

Monica Garcia, the president of the Los Angeles Unified school board, gets it mostly right with a proposal to prevent schools from suspending students for the relatively minor infraction of “willful defiance,” which includes mouthing off in class and such infractions as refusing to take off a hat after being told to do so by teachers or other school staff. Her proposal deserves the approval of the school board, after minor amendment.


The resolution, which is scheduled to come before the board Tuesday, would require schools to use other measures to combat willful defiance, including setting clearer expectations and providing counseling to get at the root of bad behavior when possible, both of which have been found to be more effective than suspension. But it also would allow schools to devise additional programs that might prove even more useful, such as detention, or setting up a special classroom, with schoolwork to be done and tutors available, so that students who act up in class aren’t allowed to continue disrupting the education of other students but also don’t fall behind in their studies.

Where the resolution goes off course is with its zero tolerance for suspending defiant students under any circumstances. The district still has not figured out how to deal with the most persistently disruptive students, those who don’t respond to counseling, and it shouldn’t completely tie the schools’ hands. There might be times, though rare, when a principal feels that the best or only recourse is suspension, which at least tends to get parents’ attention. The district already has demonstrated that bans and directives aren’t necessary to reduce suspensions. From the 2006-07 school year, when the district started discouraging overuse of suspensions, to 2011-12, the number of school days lost to suspensions dropped by close to two-thirds.

In other words, setting reduction targets might be a better approach than instituting bans, as long as there’s accountability at every school for meeting them and as long as the district provides resources for all this counseling and training. The district has long said it wants to give individual schools more independence and authority, and this would be a good time to prove it.