School suspensions don’t work. California is right to restrict them

By Christina Kim, Special to CalMatters

I once had a student who needed intensive behavioral support. Some people at my school felt this student should be suspended because of his erratic behavior. The reality was different. 

Acting out was his way of saying, “I need help.”

What people did not know was that this student had gone through extensive trauma. He has witnessed his father get arrested and his mother taken away by Border Patrol agents. His behavior at school was a result of him hurting and not understanding how to process his emotions.

Instead of pushing him out of school, we advocated to get him the resources he needed, inside and outside of school. Counselors worked with him multiple times a week focusing on strategies to help him cope with his emotions.

Past legislation ended the practice of suspending kindergartners through 3rd-graders for what is called “willful defiance” and disruption. But in 2017-2018, about 20,000 students in grades 4 through 8 were suspended on these grounds. 

Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed into law legislation by Sen. Nancy Skinner, Berkeley Democrat, to end suspensions for “willful defiance” for 4th through 8th-graders. This new law represents a big moment for California. 

I am a teacher-leader for Educators for Excellence-Los Angeles, a teacher-led organization. We strongly supported this legislation. We know that suspensions for willful defiance and disruption are too often used to push students, particularly students of color, out of school. 

Ending willful defiance suspensions is a racial justice and educational equity issue. Young men of color are disproportionately suspended for the same behavior as their white peers.

A recent study revealed that students lost over 150,000 days of school due to defiance or disruption suspensions in 2016-2017. This new legislation will keep more students in school, encouraging school leaders and educators to use more effective alternatives, and to understand and address the root cause of misbehavior, such as restorative justice and socio-emotional learning practices.

In 2013, a group of student, parent, and community leaders led a successful campaign to end willful defiance suspensions in Los Angeles. Since then, the L.A. Unified School District has reduced suspensions from 26,569 to 6,423. But even the best policies have to be implemented well. 

That’s why it’s on all of us—teachers, parents, and administrators—to insist that alternatives to school suspension are properly executed and fully funded.

In 2014,  Educators for Excellence-Los Angeles did our part by releasing “The Equity Movement,” a teacher-written policy paper that outlined ways to reduce racial discipline disparities across L.A. Unified. We continue to meet  to make sure restorative justice practices are implemented across the district by next year. 

Most recently, a cohort of teacher leaders released a policy paper, which discusses ways L.A. Unified and our teachers’ union can invest in restorative justice and socio-emotional learning practices.

From my experience with working with students, like the student mentioned earlier, I learned that identifying and addressing the root  cause of behaviors is essential to helping students begin the process to heal and feel supported at schools. 

Suspension does not change behaviors or solve anything. Schools should have the necessary resources to plan and provide support for students, not push them out.

Alternative practices such as restorative justice allowed me to build relationships with students and hear their stories. My hope is that school districts across the state will now invest in giving teachers more effective, research-based tools to help students. We must ensure that thoughtful alternatives are well-funded across the state and train students, teachers, and administrators to use them.

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Christina Kim is a Title III instructional coach for a school in East Los Angeles that is part of the Los Angeles Unified School Districts, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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