Racial gap in discipline found in preschool, US data show

Amid growing concern about inequities in school discipline, data show that black children – 18 percent of total preschool enrollment in 2011-2012 – made up 48 percent of those suspended more than once.

Courtesy of Crittenton Children's Center / Saint Luke's Health System
Using the Calm Down Box as part of the Trauma Smart program. One strategy that’s seen glimmers of success in helping preschool students and staff respond to such 'toxic stress' is the Head Start Trauma Smart program.

The school suspension gap starts young. In public preschools, black children make up 48 percent of students suspended more than once, but only 18 percent of total enrollment. By comparison, white students make up 26 percent of multiple suspensions but 43 percent of enrollment, new federal data reveals.

For the first time, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights included preschool discipline in its annual data collection, which it released Friday morning with data from all public school districts in 2011-12. Out of about 1 million public school preschoolers, nearly 5,000 were suspended once that year, and more than 2,500 were suspended more than once.

The data add a new layer to the growing concern among civil rights advocates about inequities in school discipline. And it comes at a time when President Obama has been pushing to expand access to early childhood education and promoting ways to help boys of color succeed. Of the preschoolers suspended multiple times, 82 percent are boys, even though boys are only 54 of total enrollment, the data show.

"This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, who joined US Education Secretary Arne Duncan in announcing the new statistics.

“Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed,” Mr. Holder said in a statement. “This administration is moving aggressively to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in order to ensure that all of our young people have equal educational opportunities.”

The Department of Education has offered guidance to schools to encourage the use of positive discipline rather than suspensions and expulsions, and to be alert to racial disparities that can violate civil rights laws. Researchers and education organizations have also been at work to find better ways to help distressed children – and their teachers – manage behavior in the classroom.

Troubling behaviors in preschool – everything from hitting to throwing toys to being inattentive – often stem from adverse experiences, even trauma, research has shown. Children often don’t know how to identify and cope with emotions when they’ve been separated from a parent or faced abuse, homelessness, or violence in their neighborhoods, for instance.

One strategy that’s seen glimmers of success in helping preschool students and staff respond to such “toxic stress” is the Head Start Trauma Smart program, created by the Crittenton Children’s Center, a psychiatric facility in Kansas City, Mo.

Rather than reacting to a behavior, everyone at a preschool – from teachers to bus drivers to cafeteria workers – can learn to “reach past that behavior to identify the various feelings that could be behind the action,” says Janine Hron, Crittenton’s CEO.

Once the child’s feelings are validated, he can visit a calm-down corner, for example, where he might want to practice breathing into a fun star that pops in and out with his breaths, or relax by wearing some sunglasses for a few minutes. “For kids who find visual stimulation is creating overwhelming feelings, that’s a nice way to calm it down a notch,” Ms. Hron says.

When such strategies are in place, a shift takes place. Instead of teachers calling parents about another incident, and parents feeling pressured to move their child to a different setting, “adults get on the same page about what need is this child communicating, and you have much more productive and happier relationship between parents and the schools,” Hron says.

About 7 out of 10 children who received individual treatment through the Head Start Trauma Smart program saw a reduction in problems often associated with children being asked to leave preschools – including aggressive behavior, attention deficit disorder, and what is referred to as "oppositional defiance." But all students and staff benefited from classrooms where the environment became more positive and relationships improved, a study has shown. These measurements have also been tied to improving students’ ability to learn.

When it comes to racial disparities in discipline, research has shown that black students are more likely to be treated harshly for more minor offenses, and that implicit bias often leads adults to perceive black children as older and more threatening than whites, says James Eichner, a managing director at the Advancement Project in Washington.

Such bias studies have been done with older students, but the preschool data released Friday “make me fear that this same kind of bias is at the root of some of this disparity,” he says.

“For many of these preschoolers, it’s their first time being socialized, and they need teachers who will teach them right from wrong; they shouldn’t be pushed out of the classroom,” Mr. Eichner says. “[The fact] that children of color are being pushed out just starts the deficit in educational opportunities so early.”

The Office for Civil Rights preschool data is the most comprehensive available, but it has its limits. It is based only on public schools, and only 60 percent of school districts offer public preschool, with about half not having enough seats for all students. Among the public districts with preschools, only 6 percent report having suspended at least one child from school.

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