City principal says pre-K suspensions are a matter of safety

The little-known trend of pre-kindergartners being suspended or expelled from Maryland schools was brought to light last week, spurring a local and national debate about how young is too young for students to receive the ultimate penalty in school discipline.

Baltimore tallied the most cases of suspension in the area last school year — 33 — a number that nearly tripled from the previous year.

Further research showed the suspension of 4-year-olds is not uncommon in Maryland, where 91 students were suspended or expelled in the 2011-2012 school year, the most recent state data available. The state Department of Education is in the process of changing discipline regulations in an attempt to eliminate zero-tolerance policies.

Advocates and experts decried the practice of suspending toddlers, saying they are too young to understand such a punishment, but one city principal says the decision is one not taken lightly and almost always comes down to safety.

Anthony Japzon, principal of the high-performing Medfield Heights Elementary School, said he suspended a pre-K student twice this year.

The first suspension came when the student brought a pocket-knife to school that extended to 6 to 8 inches long. The second came a few weeks later when the same student embedded a fully sharpened pencil between the knuckle of his classmate.

The student acknowledged that his classmate had not done anything to provoke him and that he wanted to go home, Japzon said.

“This is not something that we do arbitrarily; this is a last resort,” Japzon said. “But there are certain non-negotiables, and I think that’s what we’re talking about in this situation. Someone comes to school with a weapon, not a toy shaped liked a weapon, not a piece of food shaped like a weapon, but an actual weapon, that’s non-negotiable. An act of violence, also non-negotiable.”

While city school officials have declined several interview requests to discuss the pre-K suspensions, officials from other Baltimore area school systems have echoed Japzon’s concerns about student safety being a primary concern.

“I can’t afford to have a whole class of parents of really young children thinking that nothing was done when someone was violently stabbed with no provocation whatsoever,” Japzon said.

Japzon said the suspensions were for one day and made in consultation with a school psychologist, social worker and the assistant principal. In cases with young students, or special-needs students, the decision to suspend is a joint one and includes staff with intimate knowledge of a student’s family.

The school knew that there weren’t a lot of interventions taking place outside the school — and that needed to change, not just for the student but also his peers, said Japzon.

The student’s parents realized that his separation anxiety needed to be addressed at home as well and that he also needed consistent counseling, which he now receives.

“So when I look at those two incidents this year, there’s really never any doubt that that was the right decision,” Japzon said.

The city’s Parent Community Advisory Board also took up the issue of pre-K suspensions with the system’s head of student support last month during a discussion about the code of conduct.

The board’s president, Martha Goodman, said the group is advocating a policy that differentiates discipline responses by grade levels.

“We feel more work needs to done; for some infractions, 4 year olds are treated in the same manner as students in fifth grade,” Goodman said in a statement. “Slots for pre-K programs are prioritized on the basis of a number of factors, including poverty and disability, to give them a stronger start toward school success. Suspension does not seem to be the answer.”

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