As students across the state return to school, civil rights activists are hoping a bill working its way through the California Legislature will decrease the disproportionately high number of expulsions and suspensions among some student groups.
For a second year, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, has introduced a bill to restrict how students are disciplined under the broadly used grounds called "willful defiance." Last year's bill was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who wrote that it's "important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom."
Dickinson said Friday that Assembly Bill 420 is needed to address the disparity in willful defiance suspensions and expulsions that are highest among several groups: black, Hispanic, students with disabilities and gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender youth.
"If a student is kicked out of school, their chances of dropping out and becoming involved in the criminal justice system go up drastically," Dickinson said.
Supporters of AB 420, which is awaiting a Senate floor vote, are lobbying Brown before the bill reaches his desk. On Thursday, state and national civil and disability rights leaders sent the governor a letter urging his support.
"Children should not be suspended from school based on the color of their skin or what zip code they come from," said Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the letter's signers, in a statement. "Education is their best hope."
Opponents of the bill have argued that the proposed legislation would be too restrictive and take control away from local agencies. AB 420 eliminates the option of expelling a student for willful defiance in all grades, instead only allowing schools to use it as a grounds for suspension in sixth through 12th grades.
"From our point of view, it is an issue of maintaining classroom control and discipline," said Dave Walrath, a lobbyist for the Small School Districts' Association, which opposes the bill. "We don't believe we have been abusing it in small school districts ... People know each other. There are different types of interventions and we keep track of kids better."
Opponents have argued that the bill would essentially allow one child to disrupt the learning of an entire class. Dickinson said he doesn't buy that.
"I don't think those are our only choices," Dickinson said. "There are other approaches that create a better learning environment and help the student causing the disruption."
Dickinson said he feels confident the Senate will pass AB 420.
"Frankly, the challenge remains to persuade the governor that this is an issue he should reevaluate and consider a different approach," he said.
PHOTO: The Rev. Jesse Jackson in a 2009 file photo. The Sacramento Bee / Randy Pench