School students can no longer be suspended for ‘wilful defiance’!

School students can no longer be suspended for ‘wilful defiance’!

School students can no longer be suspended for ‘wilful defiance’. 

What a headline! Children and young people can be wilfully defiant but that doesn’t mean they’ll be excluded from school as a consequence. 

Would eliminating exclusion solve this type of behaviour problem? Would it help children and young people to engage in their learning in school or would it only encourage more ‘wilful defiance’? Would it mean they’re being allowed to ‘get away it’. Why would a school want this, why would they let it happen?

The answer might surprise you.  

If you haven’t already guessed, this is not a U-turn by the Department of Education and Social Care here in the UK. It’s from a Guardian article (Edwin Ros, October 14 2023) about a new initiative in California where wilful defiance’ is defined as  when a student “disrupted school activities or otherwise wilfully defied the valid authority” of teachers, administrators and other school officials”. 

Here in the UK I wonder how many school students get excluded for our equivalent of ‘wilful defiance’? We don’t record it as a discrete category of misbehaviour but it surely figures in a second recent article in the Guardian (Sally Weale, September 13 2032) where teachers reported that verbal and physical abuse from pupils has “increased significantly” post-pandemic, with cases of having furniture thrown at them, being bitten, spat at, head-butted, punched and kicked. That sounds to me like wilful defiance in action, a contest between the power of the adult and that of the child.

The data that Sally Weale’s article presents gives food for thought which relates directly to the California experience. We’re keen on exclusion in the UK. It comes in two flavours; fixed-term and permanent at the top of the ladder of stepped punishments used to make comply, from a raised eyebrow through detention and isolation to exclusion. Fixed term exclusions in England have risen overall by 30% from 2018-19 to 2021-22 and are a reliable indicator of subsequent permanent exclusion. 

We know that punishments are not applied equally as objective consequences of behaviour. Recent analysis by the Who’s Losing Learning? Coalition demonstrated that Black Caribbean children were 1.5 times more likely to be excluded than their white British peers. Dual-heritage white and black Caribbean children were 1.7 times more likely, and Irish traveller and Roma, Gypsy and Traveller populations were 2.4 times and 3.2 times more likely than white British children respectively. Exclusion of children disadvantaged by poverty has risen by 75% compared with 4% for those not disadvantaged. More than 50% of all exclusions in 2021-22 involved children from poor backgrounds, who are 3.7 times more likely to be excluded than other children. Children with a social worker and those with special educational needs were 4 times more likely to be excluded.  

There’s also a geographical element to discriminatory practice; exclusions increased by 57% in the East Midlands, 34% in the north-west and north-east, 7% in inner London. 

In the USA data from the California department of education shows that the Black students made up just 5% of students across the state but accounted for 14% of wilful defiance suspensions by the end of the 2021-22 school year. Latino students, who account for 55% of students in California, received 57% of wilful defiance suspensions. Latino boys, in particular, who make up 29% of students, accounted for 43% of suspensions for defiance.

Ten years ago Amir Whitaker a teacher and school counsellor in California was called to support a student who’d been humming in a white colleagues classes. The teacher said he had asked the student to stop, but as they didn’t they were facing exclusion for “wilful defiance”. Whitaker later learned the student used humming as a way to regulate their ADHD.

In 2021 Whitaker found himself in a similar situation in his role as a senior policy counsellor in Southern California. He was asked by a Black family to intervene a another school for a young relative disciplined for drumming on their desk. “The [school’s] initial response was still punitive,” Whitaker said. “With some conversations, we were able to redirect.” Whitaker pointed to examples where officials didn’t resort to punishment for apparently disruptive behaviour but turned to a social worker instead, who supported the student through conversation and prevented exclusion.   

At least 25 states and the District of Columbia allow schools to suspend students for “wilful defiance” but California has now  become the first state in the US to ban exclusion on these grounds for all students, expanding a pre-existing ban on this disciplinary practice for students from kindergarten through to eighth grade. The new law, signed by the governor, Gavin Newsom, last Sunday, could represent a model for how other states approach reforming disciplinary practices, which disproportionately affect Black as well as those with disabilities and those from low-income backgrounds.

Rachel Perera, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy noted that when educators were given the freedom to exercise more choice their existing bias would direct how they punish students, leading to disparate treatment of Black and Latino children and young people.

In the UK and USA the ideology of zero tolerance for misbehaviour still has official approval despite the research evidence suggesting that it can be harmful. Harsh disciplinary practices persist; Missouri and Mississippi still allow corporal punishment in schools. Research demonstrates that suspensions don’t improve the climate inside the classroom and can cause hurt through the loss of classroom time. Banning exclusion and pairing it with support such as counselling effectively reduces discipline disparities.Researchers at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education found that six years after exclusion bans the racial disparities reduced. Black students were still punished at higher rates, but the gap in suspensions between white and Black students narrowed with Latino students excluded at similar rates to white and Asian students. 

In Chicago, after the district limited the use of exclusion and invested in restorative support, researchers found that schools that had alternatives to exclusion showed an 18% decline in out-of-school suspensions over the course of a decade. Black boys in particular saw a rise in both school attendance and math scores.

“It’s a two-part solution,” Whitaker said. “It’s taking away the ability to remove students for trivial reasons. And the second is increasing the amount of support: restorative justice, more counsellors, more school psychologists and school social workers who can actually redirect the behaviour and meet the needs of the student.”

Perera says that the belief that punishment is enough to stop misbehaviour is hard to change. “That doesn’t mean we don’t try. But I think it’s going to be a longer road towards reforming school discipline in some places.” 

That’s the key, we’re trying out alternatives to punishment as the prime behavioural strategy, in my own case with Solutions Focused Coaching in Schools. It’s the way to go. 


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