California law bars suspensions for talking back to teachers

California’s elementary and middle school students won’t be suspended for things like falling asleep in class or talking back to the teacher under a bill signed by the state’s governor.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday he had signed a law banning public and charter school officials from suspending students for “willful defiance,” a broad category that includes disrupting class or willfully defying teachers.

California banned these types of suspensions for students up to third grade beginning in 2015. The law Newsom signed permanently bans these suspensions for grades four and five and temporarily restricts them for grades six through eight until 2025.

“We want the teacher to be able to teach their class and not have disruptive students, but we also want to minimize these suspensions,” said bill author Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley. “The more a child is suspended, the more likely they are to do bad in school and just do bad overall.”

The new law takes effect July 1 of next year. Teachers can still remove students from the classroom for willful defiance, but they could not be suspended.

When California banned willful suspensions up to third grade, suspensions fell by 30,000 in the first year. Since 2011, suspensions for willful defiance have dropped 82%, according to a legislative analysis of the proposal.

But data from the California Department of Education shows a disparity in who is getting suspended. Black students, while accounting for 5.6% of enrollment, made up 15.6% of all willful defiance suspensions in the 2017-18 school year. White students accounted for 20.2% of willful defiance suspensions while making up 23.2% of enrollment.

Lawmakers and school officials have been debating the issue for some time. Former Democratic Gov. Jerry Grown vetoed similar bills twice, once in 2012 and again last year, writing in a veto message: “Teachers and principals are on the front lines educating our children and are in the best position to make decisions about order and discipline in the classroom.”

This year, Skinner noted groups like the Association of California School Administrators supported the bill.