Ernesto Vaquero was suspended in fifth grade when he turned around in his seat to chat with another student at his Inglewood elementary school.

His teacher said he was being “willfully defiant.”

That single interaction, Vaquero said, set him on an educational career path dotted with disciplinary infractions. Teachers began seeing him as a troublemaker — and the only way to deal with a troublemaker was through suspension, said Vaquero, now 18.

“They say you’re supposed to learn your lesson and get better, but it didn’t,” Vaquero said. “[Suspensions] became a habit.”

He was disciplined relentlessly through educators’ legal right to suspend students for “willful defiance,” a category that has been singled out by advocates who say that it’s too subjective and broad, allowing educators to suspend students for any infraction they deem “defiant” or “disobedient.” It disproportionately impacts Latino and black students.

So Vaquero rallied with members of the Dolores Huerta Foundation Monday at the front steps of the Kern County Superior Court to urge that Gov. Jerry Brown sign SB 607. That legislation would not only renew laws set in place by AB 420 — which is due to sunset July 1, and prohibits teachers from suspending K-3 children for willful defiance — but also expands such protections to K-12 students.

Advocates say that AB 420, passed in 2015, has decreased the number of suspensions statewide and put pressure on educators to turn to discipline alternatives, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a systems approach that stresses positive relationships among individuals and favors restorative approaches rather than punitive practices.

Statewide, about 500,000 kids — roughly 4.3 percent of all public school students — were suspended in 2013-2014, the last year before AB 420 was implemented. That figure dipped to 3.6 percent in 2016-2017. In Kern County, the trend reversed slightly, and suspensions went up one-tenth of a percent during those years.

“Willful defiance is not necessary and it can be abused,” said Gerald Cantu, education policy director for the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

He pointed to the more than 2,200 suspensions approved at the Kern High School District in 2010 — the highest rate statewide, prompting DHF and more than a dozen other plaintiffs to file a civil rights lawsuit alleging discriminatory discipline practices.

“At the time, [KHSD officials] said all of that was necessary and due to violent, serious offenses,” Cantu said. “It turns out, 90 percent of them were due to willful defiance. It’s a catch-all category that teachers and administrators use to push our students out of school based on subjective considerations, and it’s not something that should be available to them.”

The district has since revised their policies and implemented PBIS at school sites, and the lawsuit has been settled.

When students are suspended for willful defiance, it’s most often black and Latino students who are disproportionately impacted, data shows. In Kern County, black students make up 6 percent of all enrolled students and received 12 percent of all suspensions for willful defiance, according to state data. Latino boys make up 33 percent of enrolled students and received 43 percent of willful defiance suspensions.

“This is a civil rights issue,” said Amir Whitaker, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Advocates in Kern County Monday singled out Beardsley Junior High as a district of concern. It had the sixth highest suspension rate countywide, but every one of its 151 suspensions in 2016-2017 were for willful defiance.

Beardsley Elementary District Assistant Superintendent Kevin Williams said he thinks the data reported to the state is inaccurate and has staff members looking into the matter.

“I can’t imagine going through an entire school year without one fight on a junior high campus,” Williams said. “Something is askew with the data. There’s definitely not 100 percent of our students suspended for defiance.”

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce