​California Is Running Out of Time to Curb Suspension Rates for Black and Brown Students

In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 420, which eliminated all willful defiance suspensions for grades K-3. But it is set to expire at the end of June unless new legislation re-establishes the same guidelines.

[Photo: Students with backpacks enter a school]
Introduced in 2017 by California state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), SB 607 would limit the ability of teachers and administrators to suspend or recommend expulsion for students who cause a disruption or act defiantly toward school personnel. Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

Cristian Jarquin was 15 when he was suspended for growling like a bear. Like many California students of color, Jarquin was cited for “willful defiance,” a broad category of suspension that punishes students for just about anything.

Wearing his California Grizzly Bear T-shirt, Jarquin, a ninth-grader at the time, grabbed a chocolate chip muffin and an apple on a Friday at Granger Junior High School in National City, California. The lunch worker saw his shirt and chuckled. He played along and growled like a bear. They both laughed.

Not long after grabbing his food, Jarquin was pulled over by one of the school administrators in the yard. He was confused and wondered what had he done wrong.

“She calls me into her office and then she’s like, ‘I want you to apologize to me, because I saw that you were taunting me or making fun of me.’”

After a brief back-and-forth during which Jarquin tried to explain himself. He remembers exactly what the administrator said: “I’m gonna let it slide and give you detention.”

She took his muffin and apple.

Halfway into the after-school detention, Jarquin realized something was wrong—he hadn’t eaten all day. So he decided to write a letter to the administrator that gave him detention and drop it off. He asked if he could leave early to drop off the letter and he got the OK.

“I write a letter and I was like, ‘I want my chocolate chip muffin and an apology.’ I’m not demanding, I’m only asking,” he told Rewire.News. “I guess the way I made it sound was very vague.”

By Monday, the note had reached the administrator who gave Jarquin the detention. It may have been vague, but she took it as a threat.

He was suspended.

“I come back a week later and they wanted to have a parent-teacher meeting,” said Jarquin, now age 19. “The meeting is supposed to have the lady who the letter was meant to be for, and some other non-biased supervisor, and obviously my parents.”

But when he arrived, the administrator that gave him detention was nowhere to be found. His father didn’t speak English, so instead, he sat there with his brother. The administrator that showed up told him it would be best if he transferred schools. He asked why they invited him to the meeting for a discussion if they weren’t actually going to have one.

The administrator told him again: It would be best if he transferred.

Though Jarquin’s story may seem absurd, it isn’t unusual in California. In total, students in the state lost more than 250,000 days of instruction because of a disruption/defiance suspension during one school year according to the ACLU of Southern California. While state data shows that a drop in disruption and defiance suspensions accounted for 77 percent of the decrease in the state’s overall suspension rate over three years, they still account for 20 percent of all suspensions.

A student could be suspended for talking back. Or wearing a hat. Or not doing homework. Or not listening.

Organizations sponsoring the bill say that the vague definition of disruption/defiance suspensions can disproportionately affect Black, Latinx, disabled, and low-income students, who according to the Children’s Defense Fund California, face “greater disparity in suspensions and expulsions for low level, subjective offenses.” According to the ACLU of Southern California, “This catch-all category punishes students with disabilities and students of color at alarmingly disparate rates.”

On March 14, a national coalition of civil rights leaders including Dolores Huerta, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund President Sherrilyn A. Ifill, and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California Director Abdi Soltani signed a letter urging California Gov. Jerry Brown to support SB 607, The Keep Kids in School Act.

Introduced in 2017 by California state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), SB 607 would limit the ability of teachers and administrators to suspend or recommend expulsion for students who cause a disruption or act defiantly toward school personnel.

Anthony Robles, an advocate for SB 607, said situations like Jarquin’s happen all the time. Robles, who is now 25 years old and working with the Youth Justice Coalition, a youth-led organization that challenges race, gender, and class inequality in the LA County juvenile justice system, is personally familiar with willful defiance suspensions.

“It started in junior high where I’d sometimes be disruptive in class for making jokes. And then I started getting suspended,” Robles told Rewire.News. “It started becoming like a tool for the teachers just to deal with a student they didn’t want to deal with.”

The school referred him to a psychologist who assured him everything would be confidential, but later told his mom about the session. Robles stopped talking after that.

“At home, my father was incarcerated and deported three times, so he wasn’t around a lot,” he said. “My brother was incarcerated. My sister wasn’t around at home. And my mom had breast cancer, so I was angry at the world and life and I thought I’d act out. And the one time I spoke to a psychologist she lied to me. And I lost hope in schools.”

Situations like this are common across the state.

Amir Whitaker, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California and a staff attorney and researcher for the UCLA Civil Rights Project, said underrepresented students have beared the brunt of suspensions.

“We’ve had students being sent home because they forgot to wear a belt, or wearing holes in their pants, or having a hoodie on,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker said he had much the same experience before receiving his doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Southern California and his Juris Doctorate from the University of Miami. At age 15, he was arrested and eventually expelled from school. Whitaker said the school created a climate that made him not want to return.

“We used to say millions of students drop out every year, but now we understand what’s actually happening is that students are pushed to drop out,” Whitaker said. “Ample research demonstrates that when you remove a child from a school environment, not only does it impact their academic outcomes, but there are also safety concerns with the student not being in school and they are more prone to being in trouble out of school.”

Whitaker clarified that not only does this create resentful students, but policies like those that lead to defiance suspensions explicitly compound the school-to-prison pipeline, the process by which children are funneled out of schools and into the criminal justice system.

“We know that over 80 percent of the people that are in jails, the LA County jails, were suspended,” Whitaker said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District became the first school district in the state to ban suspensions of defiant students in 2013, and in recent years, districts like San Francisco, Azusa, Pasadena, and Oakland have followed suit. Following the bans, the state saw a significant drop in students suspended and class days missed.

In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 420, which eliminated all willful defiance suspensions for grades K-3. But AB 420 is set to expire or “sunset” at the end of June unless new legislation re-establishes the same guidelines.

Compounding the time crunch, the expiration of AB 420 comes at a time when the Trump Administration is contemplating striking down Obama-era federal school discipline policies put in place to reduce suspensions for Black and brown students.

If SB 607 does not become law not only will willful defiance suspensions and expulsions continue, but they will likely once again apply to K-3 students unless AB 420’s expiration is dealt with in a different bill. There is no reliable indication from Brown’s office if he will support or veto SB 607 if it should reach his desk.

Brown in 2012 vetoed AB 2242, legislation which would have banned the willful defiance category of suspension in all grades K-12.

“I cannot support limiting the authority of local school leaders, especially at a time when budget cuts have greatly increased class sizes and reduced the number of school personnel,” Brown reasoned at the time. “It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom.”

Brown’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Rewire.News.

“Currently almost two million students are protected K-3. All we’re asking for is for those same protections to be extended to all students,” Whitaker said of SB 607. “School staff may not be always able to control behavior, but you can control how you respond to it.”

As for Jarquin, who currently attends the University of California, San Diego on scholarship, he hopes to graduate with a degree in structural or aeronautical engineering. And he still thinks willful defiance suspensions are ridiculous.

“Even I think about it now and it’s like … I got kicked out of school for a chocolate chip muffin,”
Jarquin said.