By Laura Jordan
In recent years, several state legislatures have taken steps to limit suspensions and expulsions in primary and secondary schools. These steps come as a result of statistics released in 2016 from the 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection indicating that African American students are disproportionately disciplined in schools. Beginning with preschools nationwide, African Americans make up only 19% of student bodies and yet 47% of all suspended preschoolers are African American. Conversely, white children make up 41% of preschools but are only 28% of those suspended. The discipline disparity continues through twelfth grade, with primary and secondary African American students being nearly four times more likely to receive suspensions and nearly twice as likely to receive expulsions than their white counterparts.
According to research, receiving an increased number of suspensions and/or expulsions can harm students’ chances of graduating and raise the risk of participation in criminal activity later in life. Therefore, several states have proposed and passed bills to curb suspensions and expulsions. For example, in 2017, Arkansas banned both disciplinary measures for kindergarten through fifth grade unless there is a risk of serious physical harm or disruption. Maryland similarly banned the measures for preschool through second grade unless there is a threat of violence. Tennessee also enacted a comparable bill, limiting suspensions for preschoolers and kindergarteners to three days.
California is the most recent state to take meaningful steps in banning suspensions and expulsions. Statistics show that while African Americans only comprised 6% of the California student body as of 2018, they represented 17% of all suspensions. In order to moderate the number of these suspensions, California expanded 2014 legislation that protected young students from harsh disciplinary measures when they willfully defied a teacher. Specifically, the 2014 assembly bill amended the California Education Code to prohibit the suspension of kindergarten through third graders who “disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials, or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.” Defined in this way, willful defiance could include actions as minimally disobedient as talking out of turn in class, chewing gum on school property, or wearing clothes that do not conform to the school dress code. These actions, while arguably purposeful and rebellious, are not dangerous and do not threaten the wellbeing of others in the school environment. Additionally, the school’s enforcement of such policies may be arbitrary.
With the passage of Senate Bill No. 419 (“SB-419”), California adopted one of the most expansive bans on suspension and expulsion in the country. Proposed by Senator Nancy Skinner on February 21, 2019 and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on September 9, 2019, the bill extends protections against willful defiance suspensions for students in up to eighth grade. Section 48900 of the California Education Code will be amended to state:
[C]ommencing July 1, 2020, a pupil enrolled in kindergarten or any of the grades 1 to 5, inclusive, shall not be suspended for [willful defiance], and those acts shall not constitute grounds for a pupil enrolled in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, to be recommended for expulsion.
The amendment continues in the following section to state that “commencing July 1, 2020, a pupil enrolled in any of grades 6 to 8, inclusive, shall not be suspended for willful defiance.”
Moreover, although charter schools had previously not been included in the 2014 kindergarten through third grade suspension ban, SB-419 remedied the omission and mirrored the new public school rules that will commence July 1, 2020. Section 48901.1 is amended to state:
(a) A pupil enrolled in a charter school in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 5, inclusive, shall not be suspended on the basis of having disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials, or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties, and those acts shall not constitute grounds for a pupil enrolled in a charter school in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, to be recommended for expulsion.
(b) A pupil enrolled in a charter school in any of grades 6 to 8, inclusive, shall not be suspended on the basis of having disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials, or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.
While this legislation does ban suspensions and expulsions, it would still allow a teacher to refer a willfully defiant student to an administrator for the day. However, long-term removal from the classroom for non-threatening or nonviolent actions will be prohibited.
SB-419 has received wide praise from schools, legal aid organizations, and groups such as the California State PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the ACLU, the Association of California School Administrators, and the California School Boards Association. Willful defiance suspensions in California have already dropped significantly over the past decade. Where 47% of all school suspensions during the 2011-2012 schoolyear were for willful defiance (334,079 out of 709,702 suspensions), only about 16% of suspensions were for willful defiance during the 2017-2018 schoolyear (59,808 out of 363,406 suspensions). Experts credit the statistical drop to school districts like Los Angeles United taking matters into their own hands and banning willful defiance suspensions across all primary and secondary schools in advance of the California state legislature. With the added assistance of SB-419, all elementary and middle school students across California will receive similar protections.
With bills such as SB-419,
California and other states are taking steps in this new decade to eradicate
racial inequality in the classroom and protect all students’ futures.
 See U.S. Dep’t. of Educ., 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look 1 (2016), https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf.
 Id. at 3.
 See Educ. Comm’n of the States, Policy Snapshot: Suspension and Expulsion 1 (2018), https://www.ecs.org/wp-content/uploads/Suspension_and_Expulsion.pdf.
 See id.
 See id. at 3.
 See id.
 See id.
 See Nina Agrawal, Ban on School Suspensions Grows, L.A. Times, Sept. 11, 2019, at B3.
 See id.
 See id.
 Assemb. B. 420, 2014 Assemb., Reg. Sess., § 1 (Cal. 2014).
 See S.B. 419, 2019 S., Reg. Sess., §§ 2, 3 (Cal. 2019); Educ. Comm’n of the States, supra note 5, at 3.
 See Cal. S.B. 419 § 2.
 See id. § 3.
 See Louis Freedberg, Gov. Newsom Must Decide Whether to Expand Ban on Student Suspensions for ‘Willful Defiance’, EdSource (Sept. 9, 2019, 4:00 PM), https://edsource.org/2019/gov-newsom-to-decide-whether-to-expand-ban-on-student-suspensions-for-willful-defiance/617238.
 See id.
 See Agrawal, supra note 10; Freedberg, supra note 20.
 See Freedberg, supra note 20.
 See id.