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Preschool to prison: no child too young for zero-tolerance

A new government report reveals a troubling pattern of harsh school discipline policies that disproportionately impact America's youngest minority students.
Students quietly listen in art class at Campbell Elementary School, in Arlington, VA, Jan. 14, 2014.
Students quietly listen in art class at Campbell Elementary School, in Arlington, VA, Jan. 14, 2014.

Each year, thousands of American preschoolers are suspended from public schools, a trend that disproportionately impacts black children and sends many of them on a fast track to dropping out or into the criminal justice system later in life.

A staggering new report released by the Department of Education and the Justice Department on Friday highlights a troubling pattern of zero-tolerance school discipline policies that disproportionately impact minority students in general, but also trickle down to the nation’s youngest students.

Overzealous enforcement of school discipline policies and all of the negative outcomes associated with them are often framed around older children and middle and high school students, but the government’s report shows just how deeply the disparities extend.

"This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain,” said U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “In all, it is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed.”

While black children represent only 18% of preschool enrollment nationally, they make up 42% of students suspended once and nearly half of students who are suspended more than once, according to the report, an analysis of Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) data for the 2011-2012 school year. Even access to preschool -- viewed as a critical building block in early childhood education -- was limited. About 40% of public school districts do not offer preschool, and the vast majority of those that do offer only part-day.

Across the country, about 1 million students were enrolled in preschool during the last school year. Nearly 5,000 of them were suspended at least once. About 2,500 or so were suspended more than once.

The release is the first comprehensive look at civil rights data in nearly 15 years, including data from all 97,000 of the nation's public schools, representing 49 million students. According to the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, the release of this year's report is the first time in which such detailed information on school data from the state, district and school level has been made available via a searchable database.

The report reveals the pervasive and disparate impact that harsh discipline policies have had mostly on black, Hispanic and special education students. 

The federal government has been collecting Civil Rights data about schools since 1968. The data collection has expanded under the Obama administration to include the collection of data on preschools and on school discipline practices. The data sheds greater light on any number of disparities in American public education, but also offers information the Justice Department can use to guide its enforcement of federal civil rights laws.

When the Justice Department recently released new guidelines on the use of zero-tolerance school discipline policies for school districts, the administration relied heavily on information gathered via the CRDC.

"This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed. 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.”

Holder and Duncan joined other officials to announce the report’s findings during an event on Friday morning at an elementary school in Washington D.C.

"I think most people would be shocked that those numbers would be true in preschool, because we think of 4- and 5-years-olds as being innocent," Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, told the Associated Press. "But we do know that schools are using zero tolerance policies for our youngest also, that while we think our children need a head start, schools are kicking them out instead."

According to the Office for Civil Rights, black and special education students are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended for minor or similar infractions. Criminal charges against students have risen in recent years, and parents and civil rights organizations have fought to foster alternative school punishments as a way to stem the use of the criminal justice system, which reports show bolsters the rates of poverty and incarceration in later years.

Black students represent 16% of the student population but represent 31% of students arrested for school-related incidents. Comparatively, white students represent 51% of enrollment but 39% of school arrests.

White students represent 43% of preschool enrollment but only 26% of children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. The suspensions also broke along gender lines, with boys representing 79% of preschool children suspended at least once.

The disproportionate rate of suspensions follows students into later grades, with black students suspended or expelled at a rate three times greater than their white peers -- 5% for whites and 16% for blacks, respectively. Students with disabilities and those whose first language isn’t English were also suspended at higher rates. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended compared to students without disabilities.

“For the first time in the history of this country, a detailed picture of the multiple ways too many schools are harming our children is now available to every parent, educator and concerned citizen,” said Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights. "Predictably and quite shamefully, that picture is not at all pretty.”

Henderson said the report highlights what he said is essentially two education systems, “one that works well for privileged students and one that is failing minority and low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities.”

“The continued failure of states and local school boards to eradicate these inequalities will ensure that millions of Americans’ dreams will be crushed and they will be effectively shut out of the increasingly high-skilled 21st century world economy,” he said. Henderson called the revelations highlighted in the report “the greatest moral challenge of our time.”

Beyond the disproportionate use of harsh disciplinary tactics, the report also highlights wide gaps in access to high-level, quality education for poor and minority students. Students of color are more likely than their peers to attend schools with a higher concentration of first-year and inexperienced teachers. Teachers in predominately black and Latino schools were paid less than their counterparts. In districts with more than one high school, nearly one in four reported a salary gap of $5,000 between schools with the most and least black or Latino students. And black students are nearly four times as likely than their white counterparts to attend a school where less than 80% of their school's teachers are certified. Latinos are twice as likely as whites to attend such schools.

The disparities go further than those doing the teaching, there are also disparities in what is being taught.

Nationwide, only half of all high schools offer calculus and 63% offer physics. Many other high schools don’t offer more than one of the typical core courses in math and science, like geometry or biology. Fewer than half of American Indian students attend a school that offers a full complement of math and science classes, compared to 81% of Asian-American students and 71% of white students.

A quarter of the schools with the largest populations of black, Latino and Native American students don’t offer Algebra II. Access to AP courses is also in limited supply among the country’s historically oppressed minority groups.

“This rich information allows us to identify gaps and cases of discrimination to partner with states and districts to ensure equal access to educational opportunities,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights. “From Native American tribal nations to inner city barrios, all of our children deserve a high quality education.”