By Kimberly Hefling
and Jesse J. Holland
WASHINGTON: Even preschoolers are getting suspended from U.S. public schools — and they’re disproportionately black, a trend that continues up through the later grades.
Data to be released today by the Education Department’s civil-rights arm find that black children represent about 18 percent of children enrolled in preschool programs in schools, but almost half of the students suspended more than once. Six percent of the nation’s districts with preschools reported suspending at least one preschool child.
Advocates have long said that get-tough suspension and arrest policies in schools have contributed to a “school-to-prison” pipeline that snags minority students, but much of the emphasis has been on middle school and high school policies. This data show the disparities starting in the youngest of children.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration issued guidance encouraging schools to abandon what it described as overly zealous discipline policies that send students to court instead of the principal’s office. But, even before the announcement, school districts have been adjusting policies that disproportionately affect minority students.
Overall, the data show that black students of all ages are suspended and expelled at a rate that’s three times higher than that of white children. Even as boys receive more than two-thirds of suspensions, black girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race or most boys.
The data do not explain why the disparities exist or why the students were suspended. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder were to appear at J.O. Wilson Elementary School today in Washington to discuss the data.
“It is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed,” Duncan said in a statement.
Nationally, 1 million children were served in public preschool programs, with about 60 percent of districts offering preschool during the 2011-2012 school year, according to the data. The data show nearly 5,000 preschoolers suspended once. At least 2,500 were suspended more than once.
Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies for the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, said the findings are disturbing because the suspended preschoolers aren’t likely presenting a danger, such as a teenager bringing a gun to school.
“Almost none of these kids are kids that wouldn’t be better off with some support from educators,” Losen said. “Just kicking them out of school is denying them access to educational opportunity at such a young age. Then, as they come in for kindergarten, they are just that much less prepared.”
Losen said it’s appropriate to discipline a 4-year-old, but a more appropriate response might be moving them to a different educational setting with additional services.