What's Wrong With Criminalizing Our Early Learners?

By Harold Jordan, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Dignity in Schools


haroldAt first blush, I cannot believe I have to ask this question. As an education advocate, I know that the path from school to involvement in the justice system is all too real for many youth, either immediately (arrest or citation) or indirectly (repeated suspensions leading to school disengagement). Some 3.5 million young people are suspended out of school each year, placing these young people at great risk of justice system involvement.

Much attention has been paid to expanding preschool access, and rightfully so. According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 40% of public school districts do not offer preschools; only half of the districts offering preschool make them available to all students in the district. Yet, the advantages of Pre-K programs are well known. Children who complete quality Pre-K programs are more likely to experience positive social-emotional and behavioral outcomes, and they are less likely to enter the juvenile justice system. In short, access matters.

I was shocked to learn the extent to which children as young as three years-old are kicked out of early learning programs as a form of discipline. So too were federal officials. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released figures showing that some 8,000 preschoolers were suspended from school programs in the 2011-2012 school year. This data likely understates the magnitude of the problem, as it does not include all school removals. This is the first time such data had been collected. When slightly older children are included, the suspension numbers rise dramatically. For example, in Texas some 88,000 out-of-school suspensions and 193,000 in-school suspensions were issued to students in Pre-K through 5th grades during the 2013-14 school year.

These suspensions are for behaviors such as crying, not listening, toileting mishaps, biting, kicking, and the like; in other words, minor behaviors that are not atypical for children of that age. Indeed, one of the many goals of preschool is to help young children with these behaviors by using curriculum and pedagogy that supports their social-emotional development.

As an African American parent, I know that our children are sometimes treated unfairly in school settings. But it is disconcerting to learn that racial disparities in discipline begin at the earliest school levels. At the preschool level, Black students represent 18% of enrollment, but 42% of students suspended once and 48% of kids suspended more than once. 

Removing young children from early learning programs harms children and their families. These children become labeled as exhibiting problem behaviors early on, which affects their relationships with teachers and peers. These labels stick with young children as they progress through the education system giving teachers negative expectations on their behavior. It taints, and limits, future educational experiences. Families are also unfairly burdened by school removals, especially parents of limited financial means who depend on early learning programs in order to maintain employment. In the long term, school removal in the early years is strongly associated with difficulties in future years, including negative relationships with teachers, truancy and dropping out of school.

A wave of reform is afoot in a growing number of communities. A major emphasis is on placing formal limits on the suspension and expulsion young children. Connecticut, Oregon, and the District of Columbia have done so by legislative action. The school districts of Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, Baltimore, and Houston have also adopted such policies. The Connecticut law and the Seattle School District policy are especially noteworthy.

In Connecticut, effective July 1, 2015, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions of children in preschool and kindergarten through second grade were prohibited unless there has been a determination at a hearing that the student's conduct was of a violent or sexual nature that endangers others. The state is also helping early care and education providers implement positive disciplinary practices as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions with grants and professional development support to providers.

In Seattle, effective in the 2015-16 school year, out-of-school suspensions for students in kindergarten through 5th grade for "disruptive conduct," "rule breaking," or "disobedience" have been eliminated. The policy directs the superintendent to develop a proposal by June 2016 for a district-wide reduction in out-of-school suspensions at all grade levels, paying special attention to disproportionality in discipline for students of color, students with learning disabilities, and English Language Learners.

The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Education have issued a comprehensive "Policy Statement on Expulsion and Suspension Policies in Early Childhood Settings." It reminds early learning providers and state policy makers:

 "Those who serve our youngest learners have the responsibility and trust of setting infants, toddlers, and young children on positive trajectories. By reducing and ultimately eliminating expulsion and suspension through nurturing relationships and capacity building, with and on behalf of young children and their families, we can ensure that all of our youngest learners have the tools and experiences they need to thrive."