NPR has a piece out today about how Los Angeles public schools have ceased to suspend students for “willful defiance.” Excerpts:

School suspensions are a big issue in California. Last year, schools handed out 700,000 of them. But the Los Angeles Unified School District took a step to change that this week when it voted to ban suspending students deemed “willfully defiant.”

Before the vote, the district maintained a zero tolerance policy for students who failed to comply, in any way, with any policy or direction given by teachers or school administrators — covering everything from mouthing off to wearing baggy pants. These suspensions accounted for almost half of those handed down in the state last year.


Miss Blake, as she’s called by her students, works for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She’s seen how suspensions play out, and she doesn’t think they’re effective.

“To me, suspension really doesn’t work, because 99.9 percent of the time when [kids] get suspended, guess where the parent is at? On the job,” Blake says. “So they’re at home watching TV anyway. So what are they learning? They’re not learning anything.”

I see that reasoning. That’s why at one of my old high schools, when you were suspended, you had to spend the day not at home, but in detention. That has its own problems, but at least it’s not a vacation. Here’s where the story gets interesting:

Historically, schools in South LA have been primarily African-American. Today, Chin says, they’re primarily Latino.

“But it didn’t matter what the percentage of African-American students there were in a school,” Chin says. “African-American students would make up well over half the suspensions, if not more.”

And the phenomenon isn’t limited to South Los Angeles. Nationwide, according to a recent study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, African-American students are three times more likely to be suspended than whites. English learners also have a higher likelihood of suspension.

Those findings have led to federal investigations in states from Washington to Florida. “There’s a real call for change because of the disparate impact on these subgroups,” says Dan Losen, who co-authored the report.

So, if black students are vastly more likely to be suspended than whites, Asians, or Latinos, and, as in LA, “willful defiance” suspensions accounted for about half the suspensions, isn’t it more likely that the problem is not with the policy on conduct itself, but rather within a culture of defiance among these black students? I can understand getting rid of suspensions because they aren’t effective, but to get rid of them because a disproportionate number of a particular race are so undisciplined that they will not follow the rules? That’s bizarre.

The other night I was talking with a young public high school teacher I met. N. is white; N.’s students are black. N. said that the disrespect for authority many of the students express is really shocking, and dismaying. Give me an example, I said. N. responded that students will stand up in class, and simply remain standing, ignoring orders to sit down. Or if they don’t want to do an assignment, they will ask to be sent to the office, confident that there will be no punishment for them. And there isn’t, in part because the parents won’t back the school’s authority over their children. N. painted a portrait of a school and a culture in which (it seemed to me) learning can barely take place, because there is no respect for authority — and where there is no respect for authority, there cannot be order.

Imagine being a student who really wants to learn, or a parent who really wants his or her child to learn, but this is the only thing open to you. You may not like vouchers, but I can’t see any other way that parents — especially parents who lack the money to send their kids to private or parochial school — can get their kids out of schools where willful defiance has free reign. If I were a minority parent with kids stuck in a school like that, I would see vouchers as my child’s ticket out of the chaos and into a school where he could get an education.

Imagine being a teacher in that sort of school, a school where you are openly defied in class, and the administration will not back you up. Imagine being a teacher in L.A. now, knowing that the administration won’t even make a pretense of defending your authority, or the order in the classroom that all students deserve, so they can learn. What do you do?

Why should the public schools have to cater to students who do not want to be there, and do not want to follow the rules? What kind of racial justice is it — most of all towards the kids of all races who are there to get an education — to throw out the rules because a large number of a particular minority group will not obey them? I don’t get it.

Why would anybody want to be a teacher in an environment of such disrespect? I’m reminded of my friend back in the 1990s who, on the first day of school as a teacher, told a kid in her class to sit down and be quiet. He looked at her coolly and told her he would do what he damn well pleased, and if she didn’t like it, he would wait for her in the parking lot after school and rape her. She decided at the end of the day that a school in which a student felt comfortable saying that sort of thing to a teacher was not a school in which she could ever stand to work for long. She quit, and found another career. Probably was the smartest move she ever made.

The kid who made that obscene threat is probably in jail now for something or other, and blaming society for persecuting him.