Students in public schools in Oakland, Calif. will no longer face suspension if they swear at teachers — or ignore teachers’ instructions, or tell teachers off or decide to spend time texting instead of paying attention in class.
On Wednesday night, board members of the Oakland Unified School District voted to phase the punishment out over the next year because of concerns that black students are disproportionately suspended for such misbehavior, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
School officials broadly define this kind of misconduct under the category of willful defiance. It’s a catchall. Other examples include everything from refusing to remove a hat at a teacher’s request, to sleeping in class, to walking out of class without permission.
Expulsions for willful defiance (as well as forcing students to change schools) will also come under the ban on the punishment.
A handful of other California school districts, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have already forbidden suspensions for willful defiance.
Also, a California state law already bans willful defiance suspensions for all public students in the third grade and lower.
School districts in other states have also attempted to limit suspensions over racial bias fears. In Minneapolis, for example, school district superintendent Bernadela Johnson announced that all suspensions of black, Hispanic and Native American students would require her personal review and approval. White and Asian students would not be subject to the same review.
Critics have questioned the constitutionality of the Minnesota policy. (RELATED: Racial Suspension Policy In Twin Cities Draws Fire)
Back in Oakland, students support the new policy.
“They never take time out, if someone is sleeping in class, to ask what’s wrong,” McClymonds High School sophomore Dan’enicole Williams told the Chronicle. “They may be acting that way because they didn’t eat the night before.”
“We’re getting pushed out of schools,” the 15-year-old Williams added. “They don’t care about us.”
The Obama administration has spearheaded the push to limit student punishments out of fears that the penalties are racially disproportionate.
In a 2014 speech commemorating Brown v. Board of Education, Attorney General Holder claimed that “in too many of our school districts,” “segregation has reoccurred.” Holder argued that “zero-tolerance school discipline practices” and other punishments “affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers.” (RELATED: How Eric Holder’s Disparate Impact Crusade Leads To Quotas)
Holder has also cited a 2011 study that he said showed “83 percent of African American male students and 74 percent of Hispanic male students ended up in trouble and suspended for some period of time.”
The former attorney general has flatly rejected arguments by critics that higher black suspension rates for minority students reflect higher rates of misbehavior among minority students. (RELATED: Holder Targets School Discipline Practices: ‘Unacceptable,’ ‘Destructive’)
In 2012, the Oakland Unified school district entered into a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to use alternate punishments and to reduce suspensions.
The Office of Civil Rights had investigated Oakland schools on the charge that administrators were punishing black students more harshly than white students.
The racial composition of Oakland’s public school system is about 32 percent black, a little under 40 percent Hispanic, about 15 percent Asian and about 12 percent white, according to Oaklandreads.org.
Since the Office of Civil Rights agreement, suspensions of black students in Oakland have dropped precipitously, from 1,050 in 2011 to 630 in 2014.
In the wake of the willful defiance policy announcement, community activist groups in Oakland are now asking school board members to devote well over $2 million to certain alternative discipline programs.