Why Are School Districts Still Suspending Four-Year-Olds?

Charlotte, North Carolina, is the latest city to explore a moratorium on harsh punishments for early elementary students.

(Photo: Flynn Larsen/Getty Images)

Jul 21, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

California, more often than not in the vanguard of education, did it two years ago. Last year, Connecticut, New York, and Oregon followed suit.

Now, education officials in Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city are considering banning out-of-school suspensions for its youngest students. Doing so would eliminate a practice that has harmed minorities more than whites and would disrupt a key conduit in the school-to-prison pipeline.

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On Wednesday a committee created by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools said it will review data on disciplinary actions against K–2 students and recommend action on suspensions of five- to eight-year-olds. It’s a response to a school board member’s recommendation and part of a growing movement to stop kicking out children who have behavior problems.

“When you look at the disproportional suspension for students of color and you really look at where it begins, you begin to see that they are suspended earlier and with severe consequences,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart told the local Fox News station. Ellis-Stewart said the high numbers of suspensions for kids of color in the district, some of whom are as young as four, led to her call for a moratorium on the practice.

The school board’s decision is part of a growing movement to end a practice that disproportionately affects black and Latino students—one that experts say is another sign of an educational system that treats whites and minorities differently.

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“This is consistent with what’s going on nationally,” Russell Skiba, an education professor at Indiana University and director of the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports program, told TakePart. While more than a dozen states have moved to end school suspensions for first, second, and third graders, some districts are kicking out kids even younger for misbehavior, Skiba said.

“What you find is preschool kids are getting suspended,” Skiba said. That’s because out-of-school suspensions are too often the first resort for teachers in schools that lack adequate resources for troubled children.

“If a teacher doesn’t know what to do [with a problem student],” Skiba said, “they’ll resort to suspension.”

Miguel Solis, a school board trustee in Dallas working to end suspension for young students, said suspensions can do lasting damage to the child that can be hard to repair.

“These are our most vulnerable children,” he told The Dallas Morning News in an interview earlier this year. “Once a student is suspended, they are labeled a ‘problem child.’ That’s a stigma that stays with them throughout their education as one teacher warns the next. So the student thinks, ‘Well, maybe I am a problem.’ ”

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According to data from the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, black children make up 18 percent of the nation’s preschool enrollment but account for nearly half of children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. By comparison, according to the data, white students represent 43 percent of preschool enrollment but slightly more than a quarter of those receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. It’s even worse for black boys: They get suspended at roughly twice the rate of their white counterparts.

Study after study has shown that suspending students makes it more likely they’ll do poorly or drop out of school, increasing the odds they’ll have a low-paying job or run afoul of the law. A recent UCLA study showed overuse of discipline has a significant economic impact: School suspensions cost taxpayers $35 billion each year in lost tax revenue and higher costs for publicly funded services, including health care, criminal justice, and social welfare programs.

In Charlotte, school district officials have implemented a program that trains staff in techniques to defuse confrontations and provides alternatives to suspension for students who break the rules or act out in class. Overall suspensions fell, but black students—who accounted for about 40 percent of the district’s enrollment last school year—received 79 percent of the suspensions.

According to Solis, this is the right approach; teachers and administrators are less likely to resort to kicking out students if they have more tools in their disciplinary tool kit. The best practices, he said, include concepts such as applying restorative justice, building relationships with a troubled student, and creating counseling programs that can stop misbehavior before it starts.

Given the possible long-term consequences of suspending the youngest learners—dropping out of school, underemployment, or brushes with the law—alternatives to suspending children who have barely entered the education system is common sense, Skiba said.

“To me, kids are suspended too young, and too many kids are suspended in general,” he said. “It’s much more costly to put a kid in prison than in college.”