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Addressing pre-school suspensions

4th August 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

It’s absurd that anyone is even talking about preschool suspensions, said Jolon McNeil, Schools First Project Manager at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

“Come on,” McNeil said. “What is a three- or four-year-old doing to get suspended? It’s probably something a 3 or 4 year old is supposed to be doing,” and part of their “natural development.”

The notion of preschool suspensions has only recently entered public discourse, McNeil said, citing a report published in March by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.

Collecting data from 2011 and 2012, the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) report on “School Discipline, Restraint, & Seclusion” found that nationwide, “Black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension.” By comparison, white students represent 43 percent of preschool enrollment and 26 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension.

For students of all ages, the report found that “Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students,” and that “Black girls are suspended at higher rates (12 percent) than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys.”

The CDRC also concluded that data shows that “an increasing number of students are losing important instructional time due to exclusionary discipline.”

In an essay published by The Washington Post and widely circulated on social media, parent, author, and public speaker Tunette Powell discussed her experience with her 3-year-old son, Joah, being suspended from preschool five times, and her other son, JJ, receiving three suspensions from preschool.

Powell, a resident of Omaha, Neb., describes how she initially put all blame onto herself: “And I would have continued to blame myself had I not taken the boys to a birthday party for one of JJ’s classmates,” Powell wrote. “At the party, the mothers congregated to talk about everyday parenting things, including preschool. As we talked, I admitted that JJ had been suspended three times. All of the mothers were shocked at the news.” Powell then describes how another mother said that her son intentionally threw something at another child, sending that child to the hospital. All that mother received was a phone call.

JJ was suspended twice for throwing a chair (the chair did not hit anyone.)

Powell continued: “One after another, white mothers confessed the trouble their children had gotten into. Some of the behavior was similar to JJ’s; some was much worse. Most startling: None of their children had been suspended.”

As ludicrous as McNeil thinks the practice of suspending three- and four-year-olds is, she welcomes the dialogue, and sees it as an opportunity to “rethink our ideas about exclusionary discipline and suspensions.”

The Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans directly runs one preschool programs and provides oversight for 23 other preschool programs run by charter schools.

In an emailed response, RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed wrote that “The RSD-run preschool programs do not suspend preschool students. We have not heard of any RSD charter schools suspending preschool students either.”

As public schools continue to ex­pand preschool programs, McNeil said that it would be a very positive, proactive opportunity for the RSD to make a public announcement and put a policy in writing that bans suspensions in preschool.

Reed said that she is not aware of any official policies in writing.

Regarding the significant racial disparities found nationwide, McNeil cited a study showing that preschool teachers viewed play differently depending on the race of the child.

The study, “Through Race-colored Glasses: Preschoolers’ Pre­tend Play and Teachers’ Ratings of Preschooler Adjustment,” observ­ed white, Black, and Hispanic preschoolers in Southern Califor­nia, and was published in the Jan­uary in Early Childhood Re­search Quarterly.

According to the study, even though all races of children used their imaginations in similar “make-believe” play, “Black children with imaginative and expressive pretend play skills were evaluated negatively whereas non-Black children with similar play skills were evaluated positively.”

McNeil hypothesized that this finding could explain the disproportionate suspending of Black preschoolers.

While the state would not provide any data on preschool suspensions, the OCR report has the 2011-2012 data broken down by district and by school.

According to the OCR’s data, in the RSD, .4 percent of preschool students (two students) received one out of school suspension. No preschoolers received more than one out of school suspension, and no preschoolers were expelled.

Of the .4 percent, both were Black students. In RSD preschool programs, 93.8 percent of total students enrolled are Black.

Looking at expulsions at all grade levels, 100 percent of expulsions (six) were Black students. Out of the total enrollment for the RSD, 96.4 percent of students were Black.

Many of the RSD charter schools in New Orleans have shockingly high out of school suspension rates for above pre-K grade levels, some with rates five to seven times higher than the national average.

For the preschool programs under Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) governance in 2011-2012, .6 percent of students (two students) received one out of school suspension. Both of the .6 percent of preschoolers suspended were Black. Of the total enrollment for OPSB preschool programs, 72.9 percent of students are Black.

In the Orleans Parish system, 1.7 percent of preschoolers (six students) were suspended out of school more than once. Of the 1.7 percent, 1.1 percent were Black students, with the remaining .6 percent comprised of Hispanic students.

There were no preschool expulsions.

For all grade levels, the total enrollment in OPSB schools is 73.1 percent Black and 17.6 percent white. Of those receiving in school suspensions, 87.3 percent of the students were Black, while 7.6 percent were white.

Of those receiving out of school suspensions, 88.2 percent of students were Black, and 7.1 percent white. 100 percent of all OPSB expulsions (31) were given to Black students.

“We can no longer put a Band-Aid on our nation’s preschool-to-prison pipeline, which pushes children out of the education system and criminalizes relatively minor offenses,” Powell wrote in her essay. “Moving my boys to another school would have provided a stopgap solution. It may have solved my problem, but it would not have solved the problem. The problem is not that we have a bunch of racist teachers and administrators. I believe most educators want to help all children. But many aren’t aware of the biases and prejudices that they, like all of us, harbor, and our current system offers very little diversity training to preschool staff.”

McNeil said that she hopes to see increased transparency in state and local data, including at the preschool level, so that parents and researchers don’t have to rely solely on federal data. Reliable information about discipline practices is critical for families trying to choose the right school, she said.

She also hopes that districts everywhere will take the issue seriously enough to say that they will not suspend children below a certain age, and say that “We are going to use that time to use multi-layered and multi-dimensional interventions that support the kids’ social, emotional, and academic growth, while at the same time supporting the teacher in the classroom.”

And the stakes are high, McNeil stressed. As with older children, suspensions can lead to a higher rate of drop out and for being held back, she said. When kids of any age are put out of school, they internalize the notion that “I am bad. I can’t do anything right,” – and that can become a trap and a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Suspending a preschooler, McNeil said, will only start the detrimental process of disengaging the child from school, from the adults in the building, from a desire to learn, and from the community.

This article originally published in the August 4, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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