California moves closer to reforming school discipline

Lawyer in Center story testifies

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Persuaded that school discipline policies are far too harsh, California lawmakers are moving closer to enacting reforms aimed at stemming a rising tide of suspensions and expulsions in the nation’s largest state.

“I have seen too many children removed from school under the mandatory suspension and expulsion regime, when an application of common sense and an alternative punishment or appropriate interventions could have kept them on track and corrected their behavior,” Tim McKinley, a former FBI agent-turned-lawyer in Bakersfield, Calif., said Wednesday during testimony before California Assembly members.

McKinley, who investigated criminal gangs at the bureau, was testifying before the state Assembly Education Committee. Speaking in favor of a proposal to reform zero-tolerance policies in California schools, McKinley recounted the case of an 11-year-old boy he defended whose fight against expulsion for sexual battery was featured in a Center for Public Integrity report last December.

On Wednesday, members of the Education Committee passed several bills designed to push school counseling as an alternative to removing students, who, mounting research shows, fall behind academically and end up more at risk for committing serious delinquent acts. The proposals will now continue their path through the state legislative process.

A bill by Democratic Assembly member Roger Dickinson of Sacramento would require that students accused of disruption and defiance – a leading reason for suspension and expulsion — be placed in supervised in-school suspension or in another corrective program, rather than forced from school. Another measure, by Democratic Assembly member Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, expands the list of recommended “evidence-based” counseling methods and requires that schools document their attempts to use them before removing a student for most infractions.

McKinley, a pro bono attorney with Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, noted that Kern schools have the highest expulsion rate in California. The 11-year-old pre-pubescent boy he represented was expelled after patting a female classmate on the bottom “while demonstrating how football players celebrate a touchdown.”

“Foolish and immature that his action was,” McKinley told legislators, “the school over-charged him with sexual battery and commission of an obscene act. Immediately before the hearing in front of the expulsion panel, I saw this child on a bench sobbing uncontrollably. No one sought to comfort this child whose single mother could not be with him because she supervises a fifty person team of agricultural workers. If she took the day off, then they would also have to lose a day’s work.”

Some of the administrators in the boy’s district told McKinley that they had no choice but to remove the boy — and limit him to a special school — because sexual battery was a zero-tolerance infraction. The boy missed more than a month of school while his case went before two panels that upheld his expulsion until the Kern County Board of Education cancelled it, accepting McKinley’s argument that his offense did not constitute sexual battery.

The boy “was made to feel like a criminal,” McKinley said. “What the child needed was some educational support and guidance,” which his mother had repeatedly asked the school to provide. Her requests for testing and psychological evaluation had been ignored, she said, and documents showed that the boy had been suspended previously for offenses that included failure to complete classwork.  

Democratic Assembly member V. Manuel Perez of the Coachella Valley, in southern California, is author of a bill the committee is still considering that would reform California’s zero-tolerance policies. He wants to give administrators more discretion to assess alternative punishments, rather than be required to recommend expulsion for students and report them to law enforcement automatically for certain offenses.

“The time has come for this type of discussion,” Perez said in an interview by phone after the Wednesday hearing. He recounted how some students have been expelled for bringing a small knife to school accidently, or medication or a toy gun they forgot they had in a backpack. However, his proposed bill was was met with hesitation by some committee members.

Some said they wanted to make sure that a student who brandishes a knife is expelled. Perez agreed. Federal law requires expulsion for gun possession. Perez said he is working with colleagues to find consensus on changes that are “common sense.”

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