The national conversation about racial disparities in school suspension and expulsion rates was amplified this week by the release of a U.S. Department of Education report showing that not only are minority students more likely to be kicked out of school for disciplinary reasons but that the discrimination starts at the very outset of their academic careers — in preschool.
A suspension or expulsion can have far-reaching consequences for students of any age, but it's particularly devastating for very young students because, in addition to depriving them of the chance to learn the basic social skills needed for success later on, it labels them "problem children" from the start, affecting their self esteem and others' perceptions of them.
The Civil Rights Data Collection, a national survey of every school in the country conducted by the Department of Education, found that while suspensions and expulsions decreased overall by nearly 20 percent between the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 school years, African-American public preschool children were suspended or expelled at roughly triple the rate of their white counterparts. Black children represent 19 percent of preschool enrollment nationally, but they made up 47 percent of all preschoolers receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions. By contrast, white children represented 41 percent of preschool enrollment, but only 28 percent of those receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.
Broken down by gender, African-American boys represented 19 percent of male preschool enrollment, but 45 percent of those receiving suspensions. And while black girls represented just 20 percent of all female preschoolers, they received 54 percent of all out-of-school suspensions.
These data add to what has long been known about older children. African-American and minority students as young as 3 or 4 years old are punished more harshly than their white counterparts for similar offenses, and they are far more likely to be suspended or expelled as a result. The department's report stops short of attributing such disparate outcomes to intentional discrimination, saying that other factors, including less experienced teachers and socio-economic disparities among families, may account for some of the differences. But it's clear their effect disproportionately falls on the most vulnerable youngsters who can least afford to have their educations interrupted.
Under former Baltimore City schools CEO Andres Alonso, principals and teachers were encouraged to develop alternatives to suspensions and expulsions to deal with disruptive children. Those interventions included in-school, after-school and weekend detention. The school system even set aside a room at its North Avenue headquarters where officials could send students with disciplinary problems in order to keep them out of trouble during school hours. But that system didn't specifically target the youngest students.
In 2013, Baltimore schools suspended more 4- and 5-year-olds than any other jurisdiction in the state, leading Mr. Alonso's successor, Gregory Thornton, to require that principals consult with the central office before suspending pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.
That is something we hope incoming schools CEO Sonja Santelises, who served as the system's chief academic officer under Mr. Alonso, continues, with the goal of eliminating all suspensions for the youngest children, when she takes the helm next month. An unruly or disruptive child may be a teacher's worst nightmare in terms of keeping his or her classroom instruction schedule on track, but in fact there's very little serious harm a 4- or 5-year-old can actually do that might truly endanger fellow students and staff. Suspending or expelling an annoying pre-schooler essentially defeats the whole purpose of schooling at that age, which essentially is to teach children to work well with others and take direction from their instructor.
Kids who don't learn that in pre-K or earlier are apt to have a much harder time later on, in school and in life. Giving very young students the best start possible isn't just a Baltimore or a Maryland problem but it's particularly crucial for city schoolchildren families because they too often face so many other disadvantages that can interfere with education. The one thing they shouldn't have to fear is a racially biased disciplinary process that threatens to derail their academic careers before they've fairly begun. There's simply no good reason for kicking kids out of preschool. It's often unnecessary, usually counterproductive and, as the department of education report clearly show, almost always discriminatory.