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California’s ban on school suspensions is a step in the right direction, Mason experts say

October 7, 2019

Beidi Dong

California’s recent decision to ban suspensions for elementary and middle school students who willfully defy teachers and administrators is a step in the right direction, George Mason University experts agree. It could also interrupt the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in September to end suspensions in all California public and charter schools for “willful defiance” in kindergarten through eighth grades. According to Sen. Nancy Skinner, the decision will help keep children in school. Alternative methods of discipline, such as restorative justice, could be applied instead.

“Whenever possible, disciplinary practices in school need to involve inclusionary efforts to re-integrate students into the larger school community, rather than excluding them from the educational and social benefits that will provide them with greater opportunities to succeed and keep them out of trouble,” said Beidi Dong, assistant professor in Mason’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society.

Added Patricia Maulden, a professor in Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution: “Restorative justice brings together all parties impacted or harmed by a behavior or incident, allowing those who caused harm to hear from those who experienced the harm, and to work with them to make things as right as possible. The ethical and moral effects of nonpunitive discipline have positive individual and social impacts.”

Patricia Maulden

Dong, who recently led a study that found school suspensions can have unintended long-term effects on students, agrees.

Some of the negative consequences include economic hardships in adulthood, family tensions such as marital conflicts and ineffective parenting, emotional and behavioral problems, and time in prison, Dong said.

The law, which takes effect July 1, 2020, does not apply to high schools, and the ban for students in grades six through eight will expire after five years.

Maulden believes the law could go further.

The qualifications in the law indicate a reluctance to make a system-wide decision and prevent school systems from challenging historically determined models of discipline, she said.

Though the statistical data on restorative justice in reducing suspensions is in its preliminary phase, anecdotally, many schools and districts report significant reductions, Maulden said.

“Many schools report that the number of suspensions dropped markedly, but that conclusion is not universal,” she said.

Factors that may impact its effectiveness include time, resources, retraining, and re-conceptualizing consequences, all of which are required to implement a restorative justice program, Maulden said.

Despite the challenges, restorative justice programs in U.S. schools continue to grow, Maulden said, increasing options other than arbitrary suspensions that are often racially determined.

It’s a sharp turn to switch from one disciplinary approach to another, Maulden said. But looking further ahead, the possibility of interpersonal collaboration that could prevent negative consequences for students would be worth the investment.

Patricia Maulden can be reached at 703-993-9804 or pmaulden@gmu.edu.

Beidi Dong can be reached at 703-993-3477 or bdong@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Mariam Aburdeineh at 703-993-9518 or maburdei@gmu.edu.

About George Mason 

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 38,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.