04 Jul Keeping Students in School and On Track
LAUSD Approves Positive Discipline Policies
By Tonna Onyendu
Sixteen-year-old Damien Valentine has been suspended several times since the seventh grade for talking back to teachers, refusing to change his seat and other misbehaviors. Although not the perfect student, he feels that the suspensions were harsh and gave him a “vacation” from school rather than help change his behavior.
“The suspensions did nothing positive for me at all. I think it showed other kids how easy it is to get suspended,” Valentine said.
After joining Community Coalition’s after-school youth program, which helped him find positive ways to express himself and develop his leadership, Valentine got involved in a citywide campaign to change school suspension policies at the Los Angeles Unified School District. “I wanted to make a difference to help other students not get suspended so easily,” he said.
On May 14 in a historic move, LAUSD became the first district in the state to ban the use of “willful defiance” as a reason for suspending students from school. Critics argued that willful defiance was a general catchall category for penalizing students for any nonviolent, non-drug-related offense such as refusing to change seats, not wearing a uniform or continuing to talk.
Harsh “zero tolerance” policies have come under tough scrutiny, as studies have widely shown they are ineffective in correcting misbehavior, increase the risk of students dropping out and becoming involved in the criminal justice system and are disproportionately applied to students of color.
In California, nearly 50% of the 710,000 suspensions between 2011 and 2012 were for willful defiance. African-American students were three times more likely to be suspended than white students statewide. Within LAUSD, they made up 26% of those suspended but only 9% of the student body, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Superintendent John Deasy, who supports the reform, described in the L.A. Times the effect of willful defiance suspensions on black males as “a gross disproportionality” and said they had “become a vehicle for getting rid of kids who are not achieving.”
The resolution, also known as the “2013 School Discipline Policy and School Climate Bill of Rights,” establishes new guidelines that require schools to use more proven and effective discipline approaches to address student misbehavior, including setting clearer expectations and providing counseling.
Hundreds of students rallied outside the school board in support of the measure on May 14. “I’m thrilled that my colleagues on the school board joined me in adopting this landmark resolution,” said school board President Monica Garcia. “Moving towards a more common sense approach to discipline is a win-win for all of our schools and students.”
“This vote is another key step in our effort to ensure that every student has an opportunity to thrive,” said Kafi D. Blumenfield, president and CEO of Liberty Hill Foundation. Liberty Hill helped spearhead a citywide coalition of organizations — which included Community Coalition — to reform school discipline policies. “Passage of the School Climate Bill of Rights signals that Los Angeles truly wants all students to lead healthy, successful lives.”
Tonna Onyendu is the campaign manager for Brothers, Sons, Selves, a project of Liberty Hill Foundation