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 out Friday 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.
Friday’s new data is 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. Students can be kept out of class for things as minor as a dress code violation. One controversial policy is that of suspension for “defiance.” A bill in California last year sought to get rid of suspensions caused by “willful defiance,” pointing to the fact that such an amorphous term may lead to the type of discrimination that the report finds. That bill never made it into law, but its guiding principle was adopted by Los Angeles area schools.
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; students who are suspended, even once, are significantly more likely to drop out of school.
There are, of course, alternative forms of punishment or other ways of dealing with student problem — especially at ages as young as preschool.
“The most important [potential solution] is a shift to more positive programs,” said Dr. Russ Skiba, a professor at Indiana University who studies educational equity and school discipline. Skiba pointed to some schools that are taking a more holistic approach. “We’ve found more effective forms of discipline. Those have a focus on school climate first. They say it’s the responsibility of the school, the community, the principle. to change the climate of the school.” This can mean using one-on-one conversations or discussion circles to get to the root of why a disciplinary problem happened, and then working to prevent it in the future. “And then use those tools of suspension and expulsion as last result,” Skiba said.
Another step some schools are taking is to simply phase down suspension policies — turning a 10-day suspension into a seven-day one, a five-day into a three-day.
It’s also vital to collect more data on why and when suspension and expulsion are taking place. “The preschool finding is exactly a result of having the data. If we didn’t collect and report it, we would never know about these really shocking discrepancies.” he said. “So we need to make the requirements about reporting data more universal. Right now there are only regulations for students with disabilities. We have no such requirement for all kids in general.”
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 know that from most available data.