Advocates aiming to reform school discipline policies hailed Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday for signing four bills they say will help reduce the number of California students suspended each year.
After years of community pressure, the movement to reduce suspensions has gained statewide momentum after several studies documented the large number of students affected, the disproportionate impact on African Americans and the correlation between suspensions and dropouts.
Laura Faer of Public Counsel Law Center, a Los Angeles pro bono law firm, praised Brown's actions as an "important step forward" that would help keep countless students in school and on track to graduate.
"California issues more suspensions than diplomas each year, a statistic that makes us a leader in pushing students out of school instead of helping them stay in school," Faer said. "When you remove a child from school, you're pretty much consigning them to dropping out and a far greater likelihood of entering the criminal justice system."
She said California schools hand out more than 700,000 suspensions each year, affecting 420,000 students who lose a total of 3 million school days.
The four discipline-related bills signed by Brown are:
•AB 1729 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), requiring that administrators in most cases use suspensions only after alternative disciplinary practices fail to correct student misbehavior. The new law expands those alternatives to include community service, restorative justice programs and positive behavior incentives.
•SB 1088 by Sen. Curren D. Price Jr. (D-Los Angeles), prohibiting public schools from refusing to enroll or readmit students solely because they had contact with the juvenile justice system. Faer said some students have been kept out of school for months because they are unable to find one that will take them, even though they have never been formally expelled.
•AB 2537 by Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez (D-Coachella), giving more discretion to school principals to use alternatives to expulsion in disciplining students. The new law also clarifies that students will not face mandatory expulsion if they bring to school personal medications or imitation firearms such as toy guns.
•AB 2616 by Assemblywoman Wilmer Amina Carter (D-Rialto), changing state truancy rules. It would give administrators discretion to not refer a student to juvenile courts for a fourth offense and lowers truancy fines, among other things.
In a disappointment for advocates, Brown vetoed a bill that would have barred administrators from expelling or placing on long-term suspensions students who are willfully defiant. That offense, which critics say is arbitrarily defined by different school districts, accounts for 42% of all suspensions statewide.
School district data in Los Angeles and nationwide have shown that African American students are disproportionately suspended for willful defiance, which has included such behavior as failure to bring a pencil to class or to wear a uniform, Faer said.
The California School Boards Assn. and the Assn. of California School Administrators, among others, opposed AB 2242 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento).
In his veto message, Brown said that educators should retain "broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom."
"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 wrote.
All told, Brown signed 14 education bills and vetoed two on Friday. Other measures he signed will better identify and help students who have been learning English over a long period of time; extend a technical education program at middle and high schools and community colleges until 2015; and allow schools to sell produce from their campus gardens.