Preschoolers suspended from school?

Sounds crazy.

But it’s real, and racial disparities make it worse.

As my colleague Emma Brown reported, an Education Department report released last week says black children account for almost half of the public preschool suspensions, but are less than a fifth of the preschoolers. We’ll look at the appropriateness of any preschool suspensions — really an “adult behavior problem” says one expert — but first let’s drill into the racial disparities.

The department’s new Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2013-2014 school year is a major empirical dive, covering 50 million students in nearly all U.S. public schools and a broad range of information. Here are key points on preschool suspension disparities:

  • Black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white preschool children.
  • Black children represent 19 percent of preschool enrollment, but 47 percent of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions; in comparison, white children represent 41 percent of preschool enrollment, but 28 percent of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.
  • Black boys represent 19 percent of male preschool enrollment, but 45 percent of male preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.
  • Black girls represent 20 percent of female preschool enrollment, but 54 percent of female preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.

Those who think black students are suspended at higher rates because their behavior is worse should find the facts, as Russell J. Skiba and Natasha T. Williams did for a report published by the Equity Project at Indiana University. The top line of their 2014 study asks “Are Black Kids Worse?

The answer is no.

“In short, the data are consistent,” they wrote, “there is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races.”

Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant education secretary for civil rights, tells the story of young children in Minneapolis that illustrates disparate treatment. These were second-graders, not preschoolers, but the lesson is the same. A white student “threw a rock in a classroom, hit another child in the head and broke a teacher’s sunglasses, but was allowed to come in at recess to help clean the classroom as a way of working off the harm,” she said in a phone conversation. Meanwhile, “a black second-grader in the same school poked another child with a pencil and was suspended.”

Studies demonstrate that this kind of bias treatment feeds an implicitly racist system facing black people all along the preschool-to-prison pipeline. A joint policy document by Education and the Department of Health and Human Services says “young students who are expelled or suspended are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not.”

While the impact of preschool suspensions is particularly insidious for black students, it is a weapon that should not be used against any child. Parents know how difficult a tantrum throwing preschooler can be. Educators need to know that kicking an unruly kid out of school, even for a day, is not the answer.

The Tupelo, Miss., pre-K parent handbook, for example, focuses on “positive behavior support” and says “if a child continually breaks a rule, the teacher and the child will work towards conflict resolution through our plan of Think, Talk and Do. If the problem continues, we will send a note home or call you and we can discuss a solution.”

W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said serious preschool discipline issues are “most often” an adult problem occurring when “the teacher is inadequately prepared and the curriculum is weak.”

To deal with misbehavior, educators need more constructive methods that are “consistent with the educational mission and purpose of schools” and in some cases mental health tools, said Liz King the director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Suspending preschoolers, she said, means they are “more likely to learn the lesson that the school doesn’t want them there or that they don’t belong, than that their behavior was inappropriate.”

The joint agency document says it is federal policy to “prevent, severely reduce, and ultimately eliminate expulsion and suspension in early childhood settings.” The number of preschools suspensions is falling, though not quickly enough. The 6,743 suspensions in the 2013-2014 school year were down from more than 8,000 from 2011-2012, which was the first year that information was collected. “It was jaw-dropping for us,” Lhamon said of the preschool suspension data.

But officials were, she added, “enormously gratified” that some school districts, like Baltimore and Chicago, have made it “almost impossible to suspend in the early grades.” The D.C. school system is a national leader with its policy that “early childhood students may not be suspended, period.”

So there is good news. Yet the remarks of Arne Duncan, when he released the previous report two years ago when he was still education secretary, still hold: “The Civil Rights Data Collection paints a stark portrait of inequity in opportunity in America that is educationally unsound, morally bankrupt, and economically self-destructive to our nation’s best interest — this must compel us to act.”

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