For years, the Maryland Department of Education has been urging the state's school systems to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions teachers and principals use to discipline disruptive or troublesome students. Under new guidelines issued last year, state school Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery asked educators to reserve suspension as a punishment of last resort to be used only after every other alternative had been exhausted. Kicking kids out of school rarely solves anything, because when those youngsters return, whatever it was that originally caused their bad behavior is likely to come right back with them. Moreover, the youngsters who get suspended are often the very kids who need to be in school most.
That's why it's utterly baffling that Maryland school systems suspended dozens of pre-kindergarten students last year over disciplinary issues. Mind you, these were 3- and 4-year-olds, not teens in middle school or high school. What can a 3-year-old do that is so egregious that a teacher or principal would feel that the only appropriate punishment was to send him or her home? For older students it makes sense to draw the line at violence or bringing a weapon to school. Officials can't ignore potential threats to the safety of other children and to staff members. But it's hard to imagine a 3- or 4-year-old who poses any kind of real threat.
It's more likely that some teachers and principals are just interpreting the rules regarding school safety in a way that lets them off the hook for students they don't want to deal with. That certainly appeared to be the case when an Anne Arundel County 7-year-old was kicked out of school for two days after officials claimed he chewed a pastry into the shape of a gun, or when a Baltimore kid was suspended after being caught with a water pistol. It was egregious enough to mete out such punishments to those second-graders; doing the same for youngsters barely old enough to name their numbers and colors is nuts.
One of the most disappointing aspects to this sorry tale is that Baltimore City has been the worst offender when it comes to suspending very young children. Last year the number of suspended city children ages 3 and 4 nearly doubled over the previous year, to 33. And this despite a six-year campaign by the city's previous schools CEO Andrés Alonso to reduce school suspensions. During Mr. Alonso's tenure, suspension rates in the city's schools were virtually cut in half, and that represented real progress. But given his attention to the issue, the fact that suspensions continued at all for such young children, who are just beginning to understand behavioral boundaries, is mystifying.
City schools officials say they have revamped their code of conduct in the last year to emphasize that acts meriting suspension for older students should not automatically do so for pre-K students. But it's really no better that kindergartners should be suspended, as 673 of them were statewide in 2011-2012, the most recent year for which data are available. Children that young are incapable of understanding a suspension as a punishment for a specific act and correcting their behavior as a response. That requires a level of abstract thinking and an understanding of action and consequence that they simply do not possess. Children that age learn correct behavior by being guided in how to act appropriately, not by being removed from the situation in which they misbehaved.
That is not an easy task for teachers and principals, who must simultaneously keep order among the other children in the class. But it is the crux of early childhood education. The most important things students learn in pre-K are how to interact well with each other and how to handle the structured atmosphere of school. In fact, the standards Maryland uses to determine whether a student is school-ready when he or she enters kindergarten have more to do with learning appropriate behaviors and social and communication skills than they do with acquiring specific knowledge. Correcting a child's misbehavior is not distracting from the purpose of pre-K; it is the purpose of pre-K.
Suspensions are rarely an effective tool to manage student discipline at any level, but they are all the more futile for the youngest children. It is almost inconceivable that they could do anything that would make them truly too dangerous for preschool, and given their state of development, suspension will not correct whatever inappropriate behavior they displayed. Maryland's leaders are increasingly coming to a consensus that pre-K should not be considered an optional extra but a universal experience. As they consider ways to make that possible, they also must ensure that ill-conceived disciplinary standards don't keep out those who need preschool the most.
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