Giving Up on 4-Year-Olds
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
New York Times
MARCH 26, 2014
A new report released by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, examining the disciplinary practices of the country’s 97,000 public schools, shows that excessively punitive policies are being used at every level of the public school system — even against 4-year-olds in preschool. This should shame the nation and force it to re-evaluate the destructive measures that schools are using against their most vulnerable children.
Black students, for example, are suspended at three times the rate of white students. Minority children with disabilities fare worst of all; the race effect is amplified when disability comes into the picture. More than one in four minority boys with a disability — and nearly one in five minority girls — receive an out-of-school suspension. Students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student population, but 25 percent of those are either arrested or have their disciplinary cases referred to the police.
This is distressing enough when it happens to adolescents. But the new data show that disparate treatment of minority children begins early — in preschool. For example, black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but nearly half of all children who receive more than one out-of-school suspension.
The fact that minority children at age 4 are already being disproportionately suspended or expelled is an outrage. The pattern of exclusion suggests that schools are giving up on these children when they are barely out of diapers. It runs counter to the very mission of early education, which is to promote school readiness. It harms children emotionally at an age when they are incapable of absorbing lessons from this form of punishment. And it places those children at greater risk of falling behind, dropping out or becoming permanently involved with the juvenile justice system. Federal civil rights officials do not explain why minority preschool students are being disproportionately singled out for suspension.
Regardless of the causes, there are ways to combat this crisis. Walter Gilliam of Yale University, who has studied the expulsion problem extensively, has suggested several ways to minimize it. Among other things, Mr. Gilliam has called for: limiting enrollment to 10 students per preschool teacher (preferably less) so that teachers have adequate time with the students; making sure that those teachers work reasonable hours; and giving them access to children’s mental health consultants who can assist them with the occasional difficult case. Young children with challenging behaviors should not be thrown out but should be assessed to see if a more therapeutic environment might better suit their needs. The goal should be to do everything possible to bring them into the mainstream.
The Obama administration has taken some steps to end practices that disproportionately and unjustifiably subject minority students to suspension, expulsion or even arrest for behavior that should be dealt with by the principal. It has ramped up civil rights investigations and forced some districts to modify their policies.
Earlier this year, it issued extensive guidance to school districts on how to recognize and avoid discriminatory practices, and it called for more training for teachers in classroom management. School districts need to re-examine how they discipline students, especially the youngest and most fragile in their care.