As a school counselor – and educator for over 30 years – I have had a bird’s-eye view on how excessive suspensions have sent many Black, Brown, and marginalized students down the school-to-prison pipeline.
During the harsh era of “zero tolerance” discipline policies, willful defiance – often used as a catch-all for any behavior that teachers or administrators find disruptive – was often used to suspend students from school, rather than addressing the root causes of the behavior. I am grateful that my school district, Long Beach Unified, eliminated such policies in 2013. Although implementation has remained a challenge and some within the district have still relied on willful defiance discipline, the change in policy has saved many students from being pushed out of school. Now, a decade later, the state of California is considering banning willful defiance suspensions for all students K-12.
Eliminating willful defiance is personal for me. I once worked with a young man I’ll call “Darryl” before our district banned willful defiance discipline. Darryl was a 6th grader when I met him. He was new to our school and lived with his grandmother, who was suffering from various illnesses. Although she had many limitations, she took great care of his personal needs and saw that he was at school every day. Darryl was an angry youngster, and rightfully so. His dad was murdered, and his mom left him to be raised by his grandmother. I would make it a point to see Darryl as many times a day as I could, just to say hi and do a quick check in. I would try to find him during the passing period, at recess, and before he left for home. Darryl joined my lunchtime group, made new friends, and found his way.
I can only think that he saw me as part of the system that gave up on him – suspended just because he was having a hard time.
During the 7th grade year, things changed. He would be sent to the office often for being “defiant,” which sometimes meant he refused to stay in the classroom during detention with his teacher for not doing his work, “talked back,” or was accused of other minor infractions. After several visits to the assistant principal, Darryl started getting suspended. I approached the assistant principal and asked if Darryl could be on an On Campus Suspension (OCS) instead of being sent home. The assistant principal refused, and with each suspension, I saw Darryl becoming less and less interested in meeting with me or taking part in our lunchtime groups. I made home visits, tried to connect him with local sports clubs, but I was swimming against the tide. By the end of his 8th grade year, Darryl stopped coming to school altogether. I would do home visits, and his grandmother wouldn’t know his whereabouts. A few years later, I saw Darryl’s grandmother as she was enrolling his younger brother. She told me that Darryl had dropped out of school and was “up to no good.” She gave me his cell number, but he refused to speak to me. I can only think that he saw me as part of the system that gave up on him – suspended just because he was having a hard time.
Willful defiance discipline often punishes students for behaviors that are subjective and vague, such as “disruptive behavior” or “defiance of authority.”
Darryl is just one of many students who have been harmed by willful defiance discipline. I have seen how it leads to a negative culture of punitive discipline rather than supportive, restorative practices that focus on teaching students how to manage their behavior positively and employ social emotional support. Willful defiance discipline often punishes students for behaviors that are subjective and vague, such as “disruptive behavior” or “defiance of authority.” This can lead to disproportionate punishments, especially for students of color and students with disabilities, who are more likely to be disciplined for subjective reasons. Implicit bias can also play an insidious role in how teachers and administrators perceive students’ behavior, leading to subjective and disproportionate punishment for students who are seen as “defiant” or “disruptive.” And facing willful defiance discipline can have a negative impact on students’ mental health, as it can lead to feelings of shame, humiliation, and exclusion.
Doing away with willful defiance discipline can help create a healthier school climate, improve relationships between students and school staff, and prioritize mental health and well-being. Instead of focusing on punishment, school staff should use positive reinforcement and restorative practices to build a culture of trust and respect in the classroom and on campus. Instead of senseless suspensions, schools should opt for more research-based and holistic, positive alternatives to discipline, including proactive student support evidenced-based approaches such as a Multi-tiered Multi-domain System of Supports, counseling, restorative justice, and positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS).
I have seen how eliminating willful defiance discipline in Long Beach has kept students in school and on track. I hope that the Legislature and Governor will follow suit and pass SB 274 to ensure all students have a fair chance to graduate and succeed!
This blog post was authored by Kennedy Earl Dixon, a Long Beach Unified School District Counselor at Cubberley School, Teachers Association of Long Beach (TALB) School Counselors Organizing Committee Chair and CASC Policy, Advocacy, & Legislative Committee Member.
Issues: Education Equity