WASHINGTON — Black students are more likely to be suspended from U.S. public schools — even as tiny preschoolers.
The racial differences in American education were highlighted in a report released Friday by the Education Department. It’s long been known that white and minority children don’t have equal access to high-level classes and experienced teachers. Minority children are also disciplined more strictly.
But, the study found that the suspensions — and racial differences — begin at the earliest grades.
Black children represent about 18 percent of children in preschool programs in schools. However, they make up almost half of the preschoolers suspended more than once, the report said. Six percent of the nation’s districts with preschools reported suspending at least one preschool child.
School boosters long have said get-tough suspension and arrest policies in schools have contributed to a “school-to-prison” pipeline. Minority students get snagged more regularly in the pipeline. They are funneled out of schools and into the criminal justice system.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration encouraged schools to abandon what it described as overly strict discipline policies. Instead of sending kids to the principal’s office, some schools send students to court. But even before the announcement, school districts have been adjusting policies that overly affect minority students.
Overall, the study’s numbers show that black students of all ages are suspended and expelled at a rate that’s three times higher than that of white children. Boys receive more than two-thirds of suspensions. At the same time, black girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race or most boys.
The study doesn’t explain why the differences exist or why the students were suspended.
“It is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
This “critical” report shows that racial differences in school discipline policies “are not only well documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool,” Attorney General Eric Holder said. “This administration is moving aggressively to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Suspension Rates “Unacceptable”
Nationally, 1 million children attended public preschool programs during the 2011-2012 school year, according to the study. The study shows nearly 5,000 preschoolers were suspended once. At least 2,500 were suspended more than once.
Hispanic children made up nearly one-third of all preschoolers. Yet, they made up 25 percent of the preschoolers suspended once and 20 percent of preschoolers suspended more than once.
Reggie Felton, a director at the National School Boards Association, called the rates “unacceptable.” He said there’s more training going on to ensure teachers are aware of the importance of keeping students in school.
Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA said the findings are disturbing. The suspended preschoolers are unlikely to be presenting a danger, he says. There is far less of a threat of them bringing a gun to school, like with teenagers.
“Almost none of these kids are kids that wouldn’t be better off with some support from educators,” Losen said. “Just kicking them out of school is denying them access to educational opportunity at such a young age. Then, as they come in for kindergarten, they are just that much less prepared.”
He said it’s appropriate to discipline 4-year-olds. A more appropriate response, however, might be moving them to a different educational setting with additional services.
“Most preschool kids want to be in school,” Losen said. “Kids just don’t understand why they can’t go to school.”
Is Discipline Too Strict?
Kimbrelle Lewis, principal of Raleigh-Bartlett Meadows Elementary School in Memphis, Tenn., said she’s never suspended a preschooler. Only in an “extreme” case would she consider it. She said her district provides behavior experts and other services to children with discipline problems. This allows for plans to be worked out with teachers and parents if preschoolers need additional support.
If there are racial differences among preschoolers who are disciplined, “I do think it’s something to look at. I think it’s a conversation to have,” said Lewis. She served on a committee with the National Association of Elementary School Principals looking at issues affecting younger school children.
Dennis Van Roekel is the president of the National Education Association, a union which represents teachers. He said that the findings show that too many children aren’t taught by “experienced and fully licensed teachers.”
Van Roekel blames policies that ignore “the professionalism of teaching.” He says they create a revolving door of “under-prepared and under-supported” young teachers. Many “leave before they’ve reached the levels of mastery required to truly make a difference.”
Judith Browne Dianis co-directs the Advancement Project, an organization that specializes in social issues affecting minority communities. The findings came as no surprise to her.
“I think most people would be shocked that those numbers would be true in preschool, because we think of 4- and 5-year-olds as being innocent,” she said. “But we do know that schools are using zero tolerance policies for our youngest” kids. Also, “while we think our children need a head start, schools are kicking them out instead.”