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Schools suspend black preschoolers at alarming rates

Maureen used to be obsessed with baseball -- and then she had children. After she welcomed her son, Charlie, and his extra chromosome, she discovered her passion for writing about Down syndrome and disability-related issues.

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From preschool to prison?

We're failing our children and we're doing it early. The Department of Education reports that black students represent 18 percent of preschoolers but 42 percent of students suspended once, and 48 percent of the students suspended more than once.
African american school children | Sheknows.com
Photo credit: Hongqi Zhang/iStock/360/Getty Images

While black children only represent 18 percent of preschoolers, they account for almost half of the students suspended repeatedly from preschool.Yes, you read that correctly. Black preschoolers are being suspended more than other preschoolers.

No, that's not because black preschoolers behave worse than white preschoolers. Please check your racism at the door.

"New research continues to find no evidence that use of out-of-school suspension and expulsion is due to poverty or higher rates of misbehavior among black and Hispanic/Latino students — rather, available evidence continues to show that students of color are removed from school for similar or lesser offenses compared to their peers," reports the Discipline Disparities Collaborative, a research group from Indiana University.

Preschool suspension chart | Sheknows.com

Preschooler profiling? Seriously?

More questions than answers exist at this point, and more research is needed. Discipline equity — where children of different races are disciplined the same way for exhibiting the same misbehaviors — should be common sense. But in a society that still argues the pros and cons of racial profiling at the adult level, squashing racial profiling in preschool feels like a surreal obstacle to overcome.

But let's back up for a moment.

Preschoolers are being suspended? Suspension is a form of discipline in which the child is removed from the school. On what planet does removing a preschooler from school result in reformed behavior? Or, really, anything positive?

I view suspension as the school's way of throwing up its hands and saying, "We can't deal with this anymore. This child's behavior has exceeded our ability to address it." If a teenager brings a gun to school, that response makes sense. It's time to involve law enforcement, and time-outs won't cut it.

But suspension in response to a preschooler's behavior?

Suspension shouldn't be an option

If school leadership cannot effectively address behavior issues at the preschool level, properly involving teachers, parents and counselors, the adults in this scenario should head to the unemployment line.

Short of a pint-sized Rambo charging into school with the MacGyver-like ability to turn sippy cups into weapons of mass destruction, suspension should not be an option. Even then, where are Tiny Rambo's parents? Where is the sit-down to discuss Tiny Rambo's behavior at home and at school, to lay out appropriate responses and follow-ups to support Tiny Rambo's parents and the teachers trying to help him or her?

Appropriate preschooler discipline

As mom to a white preschooler in a predominantly black preschool class, I recoiled at the research results and wondered how this could happen. How are teachers and school administrators — consciously or unconsciously — disciplining a child more stringently than another based solely on the children's skin color?

Or am I, a white mother of a white preschooler, being naïve about society's continued discrimination based on skin color? Why should I think it doesn't start with children? Why would I think our children's early childhood shepherds would be incapable of discriminating based on skin color?

Look, disciplining preschoolers is the bane of many parents' and teachers' existence. We've all looked to the skies, wondering what response could possibly stop these sweet terrors from throwing food, pushing their playmates, snatching toys from others and all those egregious preschool behaviors that won't help them make friends on the playground, much less in prison.

From preschool to prison? Yes, really

But it's time to address the fact that when we suspend our preschoolers, we're predetermining their outcomes. In fact, research shows a correlation between suspension and dropping out of school, as well as a connection between suspension and time spent in correctional facilities.

"One study finds that being suspended even once in ninth grade is associated with a two-fold increase in dropping out of school, and another reported that more than one-third (33 percent) of males suspended for 10 or more days had been confined in a correctional facility," reports the Discipline Disparity Collaborative. "Notably, engaging in delinquency or crime occurred only after the first time students reported being suspended from school."

Based on that information, suspending a preschooler is essentially steering the child toward a life of delinquency and incarceration. It's saying, "We give up on you, even before you're potty trained."

Preschools should not adopt zero-tolerance policies

In a policy statement, “Out-of-School Suspension and Expulsion,” the American Academy of Pediatrics said it does not support zero-tolerance policies and recommends student suspension or expulsion should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

"Research has demonstrated that students who experience out-of-school suspension and expulsion are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school than those who do not. Also, suspension and expulsion can often place the student back into the environment that led to the behavior problems.

"If the student’s parents work, there may be no one home to provide supervision, making it more likely the student will engage in inappropriate behavior or associate with individuals who may increase violent or illegal activities."

Blame falls to school, teachers and parents

Obviously, that scenario doesn't apply to a preschooler. Presumably, a suspended toddler won't be left home alone to play violent video games and go cruising with his delinquent friends.

But what does happen when a preschooler is suspended? At that age, a child's brain hasn't developed enough to sustain a heart-to-heart conversation at the dinner table about buckling down, paying attention, making good grades and looking toward a prison-free future.

If the recommended incarceration time for a toddler in time-out is one minute per year of age, what behavioral therapy genius thinks a misbehaving child should miss six hours of school?

The focus must turn to the teachers, the school administration and the parents — the trifecta team for determining a child's future. If those three parties cannot get into a room and effectively address a preschooler's behavior, perhaps those are the parties who should face suspension.

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