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Opinion

Column: New state laws will bring changes to public schools, but how drastic they are remains to be seen

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Recently passed state laws will bring changes to California’s public schools, but the long-term effects may not be as dramatic as some fear, columnist Patrice Apodaca writes.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Two new California laws concerning public schools are stoking controversy, though it’s possible the long-term ramifications won’t be as dramatic as some predict.

The first concerns disciplinary policy.

Parents know that disciplining kids can be frustrating.

They might read up on the subject, only to become confused by contradictory information. Everyone from relatives to strangers in a supermarket offer unsolicited advice. Parents might ignore their gut instincts due to pressure or embarrassment, or because they’re simply worn out.

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So it’s no surprise that discipline has always been challenging for schools, too.

Policies governing punishment for misbehaving students change with the times, yet rarely is there anything approaching consensus regarding what’s just or effective, and raw feelings can overwhelm common sense and cool heads.

With that in mind, the new law — signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month — conforms with modern thinking on the subject. It restricts suspensions through grade eight for “willful defiance,” a vague term that many believe has been overused to punish kids for relatively minor infractions.

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The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), and many educators argued that such suspensions have been employed in an arbitrary and highly subjective fashion. Some kids, for example, have been suspended for something as small as failing to remove a hat or checking a phone in class. She also cited research showing that minority students were disproportionately punished.

Suspensions for willful defiance are already banned through third grade. Under the new law, they’ll be permanently banned for grades four and five, and restricted for grades six through eight until 2025. Students can still be suspended or expelled for more egregious acts — such as violence, damaging property and carrying a weapon or drugs.

Critics contend that the new law will hamstring beleaguered teachers and administrators who struggle to rein in unruly, disruptive behavior. Some see it as evidence that we are sliding further toward extreme permissiveness, and that it will encourage miscreants while harming students who follow the rules.

But the reality is that in many school districts throughout the state, including Newport-Mesa Unified, little, if anything, will actually change.

That’s because of the growing recognition that suspensions for willful defiance really don’t work. They don’t help change the offending behavior and, in some ways, they even make matters worse by putting kids with underlying problems further behind in their schoolwork.

The trend for some time has been for districts to downplay suspensions for defiant behavior and instead embrace policies more in line with concepts such as restorative justice, which emphasize prevention and intervention strategies.

The response to the other new law, regarding school start times, is sure to be far more contentious.

The law, sponsored by state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and signed by Newsom earlier this month, is the first of its kind in the nation. It mandates that public middle schools start no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. by the 2022-23 school year. It does not apply to rural districts or elective courses that begin earlier.

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The bill had been championed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the California Medical Assn. and the California State Parent Teacher Assn., among others.

These supporters pointed to mounting evidence of chronic sleep deprivation among school-age children, as well as research showing that later school start times conform better to adolescents’ natural biological rhythms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about one in four high school students nationwide gets the recommended minimum eight hours of sleep a night. Teenage sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, car accidents, depression and suicidal ideation.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that delaying school start times leads to better grades, higher attendance and increased energy among students.

Until now, the decision of when to start school has always been left to individual districts. Indeed, then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill last year, saying that “these are the types of decisions best handled in the local community.”

One of the law’s most vocal opponents is the California Teachers Assn., which argues that it will place an undue burden on working families and prove costly and disruptive for schools. Some critics oppose it on philosophical grounds, arguing that it represents the worst kind of governmental overreach.

Those are certainly valid concerns, but I suggest we all take a calming breath and wait to see how this plays out.

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Newport-Mesa’s initial response was measured. In a prepared statement, the district said it “is working with our various departments to determine how to implement this change by the deadline. We are in the early planning stages and will communicate with our school community regarding next steps.”

I suspect that the adjustment might not be as difficult as some fear. Many districts have already been transitioning to later start times and there will likely be numerous exceptions made — I’m thinking of those “rural” districts and “elective” classes, which might be expansively defined.

In due course, the later starts could be viewed as just another fact of school life, and faculties, students and parents will find ways to cope with the new norm.

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