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Black Preschoolers Face An Epidemic Of Suspensions

Preschool Model

Preschoolers are being suspended in American schools, and a disproportionate number of those young students receiving the punitive treatment are black, according to a new report from the Department of Education.

While black children make up just 18 percent of kids enrolled in preschool programs, they constitute 48 percent of the students suspended more than once. Across all grades, black students suffer suspensions or expulsions at three times the rate of their white counterparts. Black girls, in particular, suffer disproportionate rates of suspension; they receive higher rates of suspension “than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys,” the report finds.

The same holds true for arrests in school. Black students are just 16 percent of total students in schools, but make up 27 percent of those who are referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of those who receive a school-related arrest.

The new data are consistent with previous findings on disproportionate suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of black students. In 2013, a study from the University of California – Los Angeles’s Civil Rights project found that American students have, on average, an 11 percent chance of suspension, but that black students have a 24 percent chance of the same punishment. A 2010 Education Department also found that black and Hispanic students account for 70 percent of school-related arrests.

Suspensions are not just reserved for serious infractions. A 2011 analysis by the advocacy group and think tank Child Trends found that majority of school suspensions are for nonviolent offenses. The analysis cites one study of a large, urban school district in Florida showing that attendance violations and disrespect were the most common reason for suspensions in the jurisdiction, while another study, this one included in a DOE report, found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for slight infractions and misbehavior. In many school districts, students are eligible for suspension over things as minor as a dress code violation.

The rate of suspension has doubled since the 1970s as a growth in ‘zero tolerance’ policies has gripped school districts around the U.S. But studies show that the policy has serious negative implications: Even a single suspension greatly increases the odds of students repeating a grade, dropping out of school, and ending up in the criminal justice system. Moreover, the frequent use of suspension and expulsion has been shown to negatively impact the school environment, leading to a cycle of disruptive and antisocial behavior among students.

There are, of course, alternative forms of punishment or other ways of dealing with student problem — especially at ages as young as preschool. In 2014, the Council of State Governments released an extensive report that confirmed the efficacy of positive alternatives to punitive discipline practices and called on school districts nationwide to adopt policies that avoid school exclusion as a response to misconduct.

Among the most promising approaches to positive discipline is restorative justice, “a theory that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by conflict—rather than punishment—by identifying what happened and attempting to repair the harm done,” according to Dignity In Schools, a national coalition of organizations dedicated to promoting alternatives to zero-tolerance discipline. This can mean using one-on-one conversations, discussion circles, and/or peer mediation programs to get to the root of why a disciplinary problem happened, and then working to prevent it in the future. This approach is typically used in combination with evidence-based behavior modification strategies such as Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS), a behavioral psychology approach that involves training all teachers, staff and school safety agents, and implementing strategies and techniques throughout the entire school to reinforce positive behaviors and create specific behavioral expectations for all students.

In addition to reducing the use of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, it’s also vital to collect more data on why and when suspension and expulsion are taking place. Right now, schools are only required to collect and maintain this type of data for students with disabilities. But in order to detect disparities in school punishment outcomes, more universal requirements for data reporting are needed.

While some states have detailed data on suspensions and expulsions, down to the school level, others have data that is widely unavailable. Still others have nothing at the school level at all. This lack of data can mean we don’t know exactly who is facing suspension or expulsion — and when discrimination is occurring. LGBT students, for example, face disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion, but you wouldn’t be able to detect that in most available data.


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