Taking Action to Purge the Pipeline in Colorado

By Cassandra Johnson, Hope Center, BCDI-Denver

cassandraI am a mother of three African American children; two young daughters and a 16 year-old son. From his early years in school dating back to his first experiences in "child care," my son has always been labele d with "behavioral issues." The answer for us at first was Hope Center, a high-quality preschool program. However, upon entering the kindergarten through 12th grade school system my son has been suspended multiple times. Although in his early schooling they never called it suspension and I never thought of it as suspension because it was worded so nicely ("please come pickup your son he's having a rough day"), but when he started middle school the requests and language changed: "he's being suspended and don't bring him back for x amount of days."

I questioned if something was wrong with my son and took action as a parent. We did "sticker" incentives, behavioral management plans, and routine classroom visits. He is now a junior in high school and I see how "suspension" has negatively impacted his experience and outlook on being in the classroom. He has learned to accept feeling "targeted" and being the first to be called out when other students are exhibiting the same behaviors. He's accepted being called on for something negative before anything positive and consistently facing punitive measures and zero tolerance. Seeing national attention on this issue, I now understand that this is not only an issue with my son. There is an issue with our education system that must be addressed and corrected immediately.  

As a parent and as President of the Black Child Development Institute-Denver Chapter, I'm taking action again to advocate against suspension for young children. My son at age 16 can grasp and understand the bias he sees against him and that the issue is with the education system and classroom management; not him. It took years for my son and I to make these distinctions. Can we ask our 3 and 4 year olds to do the same? Young children are still developing their concept of self and being excluded from the early learning environment with high frequency can impact a child's social-emotional development. Our education systems must be called upon to explore other alternatives to meet the need that a child's behavior is communicating.

BCDI-Denver is advocating to eliminate suspensions in early childhood education for children 0 to 8 years of age. We have educated our members and extended network on Colorado's data regarding suspension and expulsion rates. For example, according to the Colorado Independent newspaper, publicly available data on Denver Public Schools shows that students of color are 3.1 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. Further, national data and a local study in Colorado both show that the odds of getting expelled from preschool are higher than the odds of getting expelled from the K-12 system (from Chalkbeat Education News).  Armed with the facts, BCDI-Denver has taken action. Our actions to date include:

  • Our Policy Committee brought in key stakeholders, community leaders, city council members and state representatives to BCDI-Denver's monthly membership meetings to have deep conversations potential solutions for our children.
  • BCDI-Denver members and constituents participated in Colorado's Speak Up for Kids Day 2016 at the State Capitol where we engaged legislators about this issue requesting their support for intervention strategies. At the event, BCDI-Denver's President and Policy Chair were panelists during two Q&A sessions with advocates. 
  • In the early spring, our Affiliate sponsored a reception for a local film screening of Strange Fruit Redux? The Perils of Young Black Boys in Early Childhood Education with a "Talk Back" with the film's producer Dr. Hakim Rashid, professor of human development at Howard University.
  • BCDI-Denver's families made "dolls" and wrote letters to legislators for Colorado's annual Doll Day at the capital, where families requested legislators put a stop to the Preschool to Prison Pipeline

BCDI-Denver has also joined a group of stakeholders to advocate for legislative action. We were invited to band together with organizations like Colorado Children's Campaign and Padres y Jovenes Unidos (parents and students advocating for school reform) and other leaders to develop a taskforce to address Colorado's current law regarding suspension and expulsion. Colorado's law does not make an adequate distinction between young children and older children for suspension and expulsion, which allows the same standards applied to a 17 year-old to be applied to a 5 year-old. Just as curriculum is age-appropriate for cognitive development, discipline practices should be age-appropriate taking into consideration the need to support children's social-emotional development. In the 2016 legislative session, we experienced setbacks in passing legislation to create a taskforce. In spite of these challenges, state representatives who have partnered with us on this remain committed to raising this issue again in 2017 and our stakeholders will continue to meet throughout fall 2016 into 2017.

We are just getting started. BCDI-Denver will continue to identify innovative advocacy strategies to keep this work at the forefront among community leaders and policymakers. We will remain solutions-driven seeking out positive practices that will keep children engaged in learning environments. We know that exclusion from learning is not the answer for our children.