The following Op-Ed by CFT President Joshua Pechthalt originally ran in the San Jose Mercury News on Oct. 1. You can read the Op-Ed below, as well as here
Sometimes a symbolic gesture is good enough. But when it comes to our children and their future, we need more than symbolism from our elected leaders in Sacramento.
Assembly Bill 420, recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, will reduce or eliminate the suspension and expulsion of students for reasons of "willful defiance." This is a good thing. But the Legislature comes up short because it has failed to couple this important policy with the necessary resources to implement AB 420 effectively.
"Willful defiance" is a vague, catchall term used as justification for approximately half of all suspensions in California. Unfortunately, after years of budget cuts resulting in overcrowded classes and cuts in school site mental health professionals, teachers often see removing a child from the classroom or school as a last ditch effort to get the class back on track so teaching and learning can take place. However necessary suspending a student may seem in the short run, in the long run neither the child nor the community benefits when kids are not in school. Not surprisingly, the impact of suspending or expelling students falls disproportionately on children in poor and working class communities, particularly communities of color.
Consistent attendance is key to a student's success. We need children in school where they can learn, play, interact with other kids and be under the supervision of trained adults. If a child is being disruptive or defiant, we need to engage that young person at school with mental health professionals who are trained to help kids begin to work through often serious emotional issues.
Without attaching funding to AB 420, the Legislature puts the responsibility for implementing this policy on the shoulders of teachers and school site personnel without the resources to make this successful. This is a recipe for creating more anger and frustration. Teachers will be stuck trying to help defiant children while attending to classrooms full of other students wanting to learn. The kids who are acting out will not be kicked out of school, which is a good thing, but without real help in the form of counseling.
As a high school teacher at an overcrowded inner city school in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, I have seen how resources to hire trained professionals can benefit kids trying to navigate serious emotional issues while helping teachers and the school. At my school, we had three grant funded mental health professionals -- two psychiatric social workers and a school psychologist on campus at all time. Kids who were being disruptive did not have to be suspended or expelled but could talk to a professional while the teacher continued the business of the classroom.
The California Federation of Teachers took a neutral position on AB 420 because we felt that this legislation gave the illusion that the Legislature was doing something positive while failing to put resources behind it.
Earlier this year, the CFT supported a piece of legislation called "Healthy Kids, Healthy Minds," that would have funded pilot projects in three districts around the state to hire a full-time nurse and mental health professional in every school while requiring school libraries stay open before and after school. The Legislature somehow couldn't find any money to make that happen, and the bill died in appropriations.
We can do better, and we should do better. We owe it to our students to rethink how we approach discipline for "willful defiance." But we also owe it to them to provide the necessary resources so all students can succeed.