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At the end of September, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation held its Annual Legislative Conference, which confronted a wide range of issues in the African American community and the nation. The conference addressed many of the “chronic and widespread” racial disparities in education, which were also addressed in the latest “Dear Colleague” letter from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Among the speakers was Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon, who shared the disturbing pre-K suspension data that were released in a March 2014 report. She spoke of the disproportionate use of this disciplinary tool on children of color, particularly among African-American children. The data show that pre-K students of color are being suspended and expelled at a much higher rate. The OCR report stated that “black children represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 48% of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension.”

This uneven use of suspension and expulsion is mirrored across K-12, as well. But the statistics are particularly disturbing for pre-K because it is a child’s first experience in school. Research by Walter Gilliam, Ph.D., a director at the Yale University Child Study Center, shows that the use of suspension in early childhood is not only ineffective, but also can be a harmful disciplinary tool, as it denies children access to early learning.

Although there have been many reports and articles over the years questioning the pre-K suspension rates, the issue continues to rise to the forefront due to the scarcity of meaningful policy to address this issue. There are exceptions: Some cities and school districts have stepped up to address pre-K suspension and expulsion through legislation or regulation. The District of Columbia, for instance, recently introduced the Pre-K Student Discipline Amendment Act of 2014. This new legislation, if passed, would prohibit the suspension of pre-K through 2nd grade students in public schools, traditional and charter, except in cases involving extreme safety concerns. Although this legislation is still pending, the District of Columbia Public Schools has already banned pre-K suspension in district-run programs.

Leaders in other cities have also begun regulating the use of suspension and expulsion in early childhood. In Minneapolis, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson implemented a new pre-K through 1st grade suspension ban for non-violent offenses at the beginning of this school year. In August, the Chicago Public School Board of Education voted and passed legislation to prohibit the suspension of pre-K through 2nd grade students. In Baltimore City Public Schools, due to a new discipline policy, to suspend or expel a pre-K and kindergarten student, principals must consult central office first to obtain approval.  And at the federal level, the new Child Care and Development Block Grant reauthorization bill includes a requirement of training for teachers and other center staff in an effort to limit expulsion in child care centers, as noted by colleague Clare McCann in a recent blog post explaining the legislation.

These are good steps, but they are not widespread enough. In most school districts across the country, young children and families are being stigmatized for behaviors that could be mediated and redirected with the proper classroom supports, such as smaller student-to-teacher ratios, access to early childhood mental health consultants, and more effective professional development on disruptive behaviors and cultural competency. Additionally, after developmental screenings, timely support from special education and mental health professionals is needed to help classroom teachers to quell disruptive behaviors.

The inappropriate use of suspension is evident in this Washington Post story in which a mother explains the generational impact that suspension has had on her family. Tunette Powell, who was herself suspended from preschool, explains that her 3- and 4-year-old African American boys were suspended a combined total of eight times. She admittedly stated that her sons displayed some very disruptive classroom behaviors; however, the excessive number of suspensions that these two young children experienced suggests that this discipline tool has not positively changed their behavior. It is being misused. Further, Powell’s story demonstrates the racial disparities shown in the OCR data. She writes:

“My son threw something at a kid on purpose and the kid had to be rushed to the hospital,” another parent said. “All I got was a phone call.”

One after another, white mothers confessed the trouble their children had gotten into. Some of the behavior was similar to JJ’s; some was much worse.

Most startling: None of their children had been suspended.

Children won’t fully benefit from pre-K if they are not receiving the proper supports, or worse, if they are removed from the learning environment altogether. It is promising that some cities and districts are making strides in this area and creating policies to eliminate the use of suspension in pre-K and the early grades. More should follow their lead, and then take the next step of investing in greater access to early childhood mental health professionals.