New Law in California Replaces Personal Responsibility with Ethical Relativism
California has become the first state in the nation to prohibit schools from suspending or expelling students who engage in “willful defiance” behavior. One reason for the passage of Assembly Bill 420, according to the sponsors, is that it has been disproportionately used statewide to discipline African-American students and, in some districts, Latino students. In 2012-13, African-Americans made up about 6 percent of total enrollment, but 19 percent of suspensions for defiance. Other minorities also may be more susceptible to suspension or expulsion for behavior such as talking back to teachers, fooling around in class, talking to other students at inappropriate times, and other disruptive behaviors that make it difficult to provide a learning environment in K-12.
There is no doubt that students must be treated equal in the application of the law and any deviation from this standard is unacceptable. The issue for me is the new law provides no alternatives to suspension or expulsion for willful defiance. While I agree in some cases the punishment may exceed the crime, school kids still have to learn ethical values such as respect, responsibility for one’s actions, and a work ethic. Disruptive behaviors fly in the face of developing these values. Furthermore, it makes the job of a teacher more difficult at a time when attention span is a big issue, especially for kids at younger ages, and the lack of clear cut standards for willful defiance behavior means the implementation of the law can vary quite a bit from one school district to another.
There is some logic to the new law. Under the Section 48900-48927 of the California Education Code, the reasons for suspension or expulsion are much more serious than willful defiance so that a lesser offense for disruptive behaviors seems to be defensible. The reasons include:
- Harassing or intimidating another person
- Threatening to cause physical harm to another person
- Willfully using force or violence upon another person, except for in self-defense
- Possessing, selling, or otherwise furnishing a firearm, knife, explosive, or other dangerous object
- Use, sale or distribution of a controlled substance, alcohol or any intoxicant
- Causing damage or theft of school property
- Sexual assault
- Engaging in any act of bullying
These are just a few examples of the kinds of behavior that might lead to suspension or expulsion – and rightly so. But, the new California law fails to spell out what might happen to a student who disrupts class, especially those who are repeat offenders. While suspension may be too harsh, although I believe it is not for repeat offenders, the law does not detail the punishment so it is left to each school district and this could lead to unequal treatment of the offenders.
I believe the best way to treat willful defiance is by first calling a meeting with the parents to discuss the improper behaviors. This should be used as a teachable moment both for the student and parents, the latter of whom who might take it for granted that their kid is a model for good behavior. The parents may very well need a wake-up call as much as the kid does. After all, discipline begins in the home and should not be left solely to the school. Disruptive behavior should also be discussed in class in a general way and linked to ethical behavior.
I recommend that the first offense should lead to a warning that goes on the kids’ record. Thereafter, the school should periodically communicate with the parents about the “progress” of their kid. The second offense should lead to suspension. A continued pattern of disruptive behavior, even after appropriate steps have been taken to change those behaviors, should lead to expulsion.
As a college professor I have to deal with students who, from time to time, do not stop all conversations once I begin to lecture and do not pay attention in class -- even talking to their neighbors thereby disrupting the flow of my presentation. The key is for K-12 to pay as much attention as possible to the behaviors of their students, disciplinary issues, developing a work ethic, and demanding personal responsibility, so they are better prepared for the college experience that is supposed to create a learning environment.
Teachers should discuss disruptive behavior in class in a general way and explain why it is wrong. One thing I do is to purposefully interrupt my students when they make an in-class presentation and then ask how they feel about it. Did it affect the flow of the presentation? Did they get angry at me? In other words I use offensive behaviors as a teachable moment by placing students in my position when I have to deal with disruptive behaviors in class.
In commenting about the need for the new law, California Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who wrote the legislation, claims one of the reasons for the disproportionate effects of willful defiance on these students is that teachers and administrators lack cultural competence. “We see disproportionate levels of discipline for LGBT-identifying kids, disabled kids, as well as African American kids and Latino kids,” he said. “I think it has to do with expectations that teachers and administrators have about behavioral norms. In many instances, students may have different expectations of behavioral norms.”
Obviously, any discriminatory application of the willful defiance provision in the pre-existing law would have been wrong. Ethics requires fair treatment for all groups based on the same standard of behavior and equal application of the law. However, I do take exception to the remark that teachers and administrators have different expectations of behavioral norms than students and, therefore, the willful defiance provision is somehow flawed. This is ethical relativism at its worst. We [should] have a set of values based on what is right and what is wrong behavior. If we can’t even agree on those values, then we’ve already lost the battle and we wind up with a society where anyone can do whatever they want as long as it conforms to one’s personal expectations.
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 6, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.