Dozens of pre-kindergartners were suspended last school year in Maryland, with the most suspensions in Baltimore, highlighting a little-known practice that some education experts say is too extreme for toddlers who are just being introduced to educational settings.
The number of out-of-school suspensions in Baltimore for children ages 3 and 4 nearly doubled since the previous year to 33, according to data provided by the city school system.
Some other area districts reported just a handful of pre-K suspensions in the last school year, while Anne Arundel County reported 19 and Howard County officials said they have never suspended a child that young.
The practice comes to light as the city school system is revising its suspension policy to require schools to eliminate automatic suspensions for certain violations and first requiring other interventions, such as parent conferences.
The pre-K suspensions also underscore a broader debate about zero-tolerance policies, sparked by young children being suspended for actions such as making gun hand gestures and chewing a breakfast pastry in the shape of a gun. Such policies are aimed at making schools safe, but some say they have been taken too far.
David Beard, education policy director at Advocates for Children and Youth, said any school system should be hard-pressed to find a reason to suspend 3- or 4-year-olds, because they are too young to understand such a consequence.
"Anything before third grade, really, a suspension makes no sense," Beard said. "Just in terms of their brain development … they don't know the difference from a vacation. It's really concerning for these really young kids, because that's a really critical time when they're supposed to be learning their letters and their numbers."
Across Maryland, 91 pre-K students were suspended or expelled in the 2011-2012 school year, the most recent year with statewide data available. That compares to 75 in 2009 and 105 in 2010.
Most of the students were suspended for physical attacks on teachers or students, though a handful were suspended for offenses such as sexual activity, possession of a firearm or other guns, inciting a public disturbance, and vandalism.
The data also show that pre-kindergartners were suspended for insubordination and disrespect, classroom disruption and refusing to obey school policies.
Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the state is concerned about suspensions at all grade levels and "believes that too many students are suspended out of school for nonviolent activity, and that too many suspended students do not receive the educational services to which they are entitled under the law."
The state school board is overhauling its discipline regulations to require districts to eliminate "zero-tolerance" policies and greatly reduce the number of suspensions for nonviolent offenses such as insubordination.
Beard noted that the proposed state regulations, which he supports, may not have an impact on pre-K students because the policies target older students who are out of school for long periods of time.
He hopes the state's discipline reforms will evolve to differentiate among grade levels because data show that children's chances of suspension rise when they become full-time students.
He pointed to state data showing a suspensions jump between pre-K and kindergarten. In the 2011-2012 school year, 673 kindergartners were suspended in Maryland — a number that has risen each year since 2008.
"The multiplier there is huge," Beard said. "I don't know what happens to these kids, whether or not they go to summer camp with the devil or something. But it seems it's our patience with them that changes."
Walter S. Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at the Yale School of Medicine, said it would be in the state's best interest to investigate how it can reduce the number of students who are pushed out of school before they've started full time.
Maryland school districts have funneled millions of dollars into pre-K programs — Baltimore City's costs about $29 million per year — and there are continual efforts to expand them.
"We invest in preschool programs because the research says that it yields results," Gilliam said. "The truth of the matter is the cost-benefit analysis is on children who are at risk and need it the most, so you're basically undercutting your investment."
He added, "If there's ever a child who needed preschool, it's the kid who is kicked out of it."
City school officials recently changed the code of conduct to reduce suspensions, citing as a catalyst an elementary school student being suspended for bringing a water gun to school.
They also acknowledged that the significant increase in pre-K suspensions contributed in part to the decision to downgrade the range of consequences for some offenses. The increase signaled that principals were removing children from school without exploring other options, they said.
The city school system — where roughly 5,000 students were enrolled in pre-K last year — did not respond to repeated requests for interviews about its pre-K suspension increase and declined to disclose the specific offenses that led to the suspensions.
The number of pre-K suspensions in the city has fluctuated over the past five years, reaching a low of 10 in the 2009-2010 school year and a high of 40 the following year. Gilliam said that could reflect changing attitudes or a handful of schools being responsible for the spikes.
"That makes me wonder if there's a small number of places driving this, or if there's a wild variation of how people feel in Baltimore, where one year everything is peachy-keen and one year everyone is kicked out," Gilliam said.
Howard County is the only area district that has never reported a pre-K suspension, and a spokeswoman said that was partly a philosophical decision.
"There are certain non-negotiables that pose a threat to others in a school," Howard schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said. "That said, there are developmentally appropriate, tiered behavioral supports that staff would put into place to address most behavioral concerns."
In Baltimore County, suspensions among pre-K students dropped over the past five years. In the 2008-2009 school year, the district suspended 16 pre-kindergartners; last year, it suspended one.
Baltimore County officials said the majority of its suspensions were related to disruptive behavior and fighting, and were designed to encourage the parents to come in to talk about what to do next.
Dale Rauenzahn, executive director of safety and support for the county school system, said the county has been working to reduce suspensions of all students — in the past five years, the district has reduced its suspension rate from 11.2 percent to 5.3 percent — by encouraging staff to use the method as a last resort.
"We wanted to change the behaviors of students and also the behavior of staff, and that has obviously had an impact on pre-K suspensions," Rauenzahn said.
Carroll County reported no pre-K suspensions last year. Spokeswoman Carey Gaddis said the district, which hasn't had a pre-K suspension since its two in 2011, decided that "at that level, teachers try very hard to work with parents and make it a teachable moment about right and wrong for the students."
Harford County had two pre-K suspensions last year, for "refusal to obey school policies," according to spokeswoman Teri Kranefeld.
Of Anne Arundel's 19 pre-K suspensions, the majority resulted from physical attacks on other students.
In 2005, Gilliam authored a first-of-its-kind, national study of pre-kindergarten expulsion rates that garnered international attention.
Gilliam said that although the number of pre-K students being kicked out of school is usually small, the public was struck that it happened at all for such young children.
"At first, school administrators didn't believe it — Maryland's included," he said. "Then they did their own research and found it was more common than they thought."
At the time, Maryland's pre-K expulsion rate was about 5.9 per every 1,000 students, and ranked 24th of 40 states that offered pre-K programs.
Gilliam found that several factors, such as a teacher's job stress and whether students were in a half-day or full-day program, contributed to the likelihood that preschoolers would be kicked out of school.
He also said he believed administrators took more liberty in kicking pre-K students out because the programs are voluntary, and students do not legally begin their educational careers until kindergarten.
"Kindergarten is a legalized process, so the pressure was on to address keeping students in school," Gilliam said. "We are not there with preschool."
By the numbers
The following are the number of pre-kindergarten suspensions in the Baltimore-area school systems for the 2012-2013 school year:
Anne Arundel County: 19
Baltimore City: 33
Baltimore County: 1
Carroll County: 0
Harford County: 2
Howard County: 0
Source: Data provided by the individual school systems