New Data Shows The School-To-Prison Pipeline Starts As Early As Preschool

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Black students are disproportionately suspended from class, starting as early as preschool, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Education collected from all public school districts during the 2013–2014 school year.

Black preschool children were 3.6 times more likely than white children to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions, according to the survey data. Although boys were more likely than girls to be suspended in preschool, black girls also had high rates of suspension.

This pattern continued in K-12, where black students were 1.9 times more likely than white students to be expelled from school without educational services and 2.3 times more likely to be disciplined through involvement of officers, such as a school-related arrest, according to the department. Multi-racial boys and and Native American boys also had higher rates of expulsion.

The growth of school resource officers in the past decade and sworn law enforcement officers in schools may have something to do with these rates, although the department did not state that in its report. The data collection does show that 24 percent of elementary schools and 42 percent of high schools have these officers — and there are more of them in high schools that have high black and Latino student enrollment. Fifty-one percent of high schools with high enrollment of black and Latino students have sworn lawn enforcement officers.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Race isn’t the only factor that contributes to high rates of student discipline. Students with disabilities who are served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions, and 67 percent of them underwent restraint and seclusion.

Secretary of Education John King told reporters that the data in general, including factors beyond student discipline, shows students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities are facing serious educational inequities.

“We all lose out in multiple ways. We lose out economically because people who are poorly educated earn less, pay less in taxes and need more services. They will also more likely end up in prison,” King said. “But we lose out in other ways that are not obvious. We can’t help but think of the art that is not created, the entrepreneurial ideas that may never reach the drawing board, the classrooms these Americans will never lead, the discoveries they’ll never make. Our failure to educate some groups children as well as others tear at the moral fabric of the nation.”

Suspending Students Carries A Very High Economic Cost, New Report ExplainsEducation CREDIT: Eric Gay, AP A report released Thursday by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights…thinkprogress.orgKing’s comments on this loss of talent echo the findings of a report released last week that show student suspensions cost the nation as whole. The University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project released a paper showing the cost of these suspensions — $35 billion in lost taxpayer revenue, for the cost of keeping people in prison and paying for health care, since students who get suspended are more likely to drop out of school, earn less money, and get involved in the criminal justice system.

There are several ways schools could work to lower suspension rates, according to Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation who researches issues such as preschool equity, charter schools, and school integration. Potter said teachers need more support from schools, such as occasional visits from school psychologists, and more wraparound services in general to ensure teachers don’t simply address the issue of loss of control of the classroom by suspending students. But to address racial disparities in particular, there needs to be a dialogue about racial biases and how to recognize them in the classroom.

“If you think about a preschool student … how a preschool student bites another student and how a teacher how reacts, and if you have a white teacher and that’s a white student, there might be a different pathway in that teachers brain, that says, ‘Oh I recognize that is developmentally appropriate behavior I’ve seen in my child or I’ve seen my niece do this, and so I know how to respond,” Potter said. ‘”Whereas if that’s a kid of color, there might be different assumptions. There might be a thought that ‘Oh, this is the beginning of aggressive behavior that we need to manage,’ and those types of decisions happen in split seconds.”

“Those types of decisions happen in split seconds.”

It’s up to schools to ensure that teachers are aware of their own biases, Potter noted.

“Schools need to provide a chance for all of the adults who are interacting with kids on a daily basis to reflect on their own background and their own baggage that they bring into a situation, so they can be aware of those things and modify their own behavior in the moment,” Potter said. “So if you look at your own classroom and your own schools’ discipline data and see real disparities, think about what you need to do to drill down on the classroom level to change the ways those interactions happen in the moment.”

The report wasn’t all bad news. According to the department’s data, out-of-school suspensions fell by almost 20 percent compared to the 2011–2012 survey. Potter said the decrease in suspensions may be due to the growth of restorative justice practices in recent years, as well as increased media attention on issues of student discipline.

But she says there are also clear incentives for schools to keep working on cutting suspensions.

“If you’re trying to figure out how to move the achievement gap in other ways, one of the strategies you have to come back to is looking at the ways school discipline affects students,” Potter said. “And if you have a persistent racial or socioeoconomic achievement gap, as virtually every school does, one of the things that can really affect that is who is in the classroom on a daily basis and who is missing time because of disciplinary action. I think the incentives are aligned right for districts to be looking at it.”