The harsh practice of early childhood centers and elementary schools meting out discipline to “difficult” children through suspension or expulsion is netting more attention. Even more disturbing is the higher rate at which African-Americans and Latinos face exclusionary discipline for behavioral reasons. Special-needs kids are also more frequently disciplined than the general student population. Punitive measures applied in special ed are higher yet for kids of color.
Black boys are consistently disciplined more than any other students across the educational spectrum.
These practices and trends happen nationwide in pre-K, elementary, middle and high school settings. Nebraska’s largest school district, the Omaha Public Schools, incurred a $1.85 million penalty from the Nebraska Department of Education in 2015 for disproportionate suspension of special-ed students. A district report for the 2017-2018 academic year revealed blacks and Latinos suspended at two or three times the rate of whites within the general and special-ed populations.
In the wake of community concerns, district suspension data is slated to be discussed at the Feb. 20 OPS board meeting.
Despite studies-reports, strategies-initiatives on the issue, data show a persistent problem here and across the U.S. where there’s diverse student enrollment.
Yet some schools-centers manage misbehavior without resorting to exclusionary discipline as a matter of policy.
There’s consensus by educators, academics and parents that repeated, prolonged removals from the classroom negatively impact a child’s educational, social-emotional developmental progress. It also poses challenges to parents and families.
“There are very few parents in a position where suddenly having a child home for some amount of time is going to be easily managed. This can create significant challenges for families.” said Juliet Summers, policy coordinator for Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice at Voices for Children in Nebraska.
Jana Habrock, director of Early Childhood Mental Health at the Child Saving Institute (CSI), said, “Research and experts agree suspension-expulsion is harmful for young children. It has damaging effects on children and their relationship to school and the message it sends to them about their worth.”
“As a practical matter,” Summers said, “every time a student is suspended or expelled, learning time is lost. When the student returns to class, he or she will be a little bit behind, understand a little bit less of what the class is learning. The student may act out from boredom or lack of understanding, and the cycle repeats.
“This repeat cycle of behavioral choices, being excluded, feeling unwelcome, returning and feeling lost, can certainly foster negative perceptions about school, education and authority figures. Exclusionary discipline, particularly for young children, can have lasting impacts. If a child comes to believe he or she is unwelcome or unwanted in a classroom environment, one defense mechanism can be to decide he or she does not want to be there anyway and act out accordingly. Written or unwritten labels of ‘the bad kid’ can stick, not just with educators, but with children themselves.”
At Nelson Mandela School in North Omaha, principal Susan Toohey said, “We don’t believe in suspensions – we believe in timeouts.” Serving a suspension at home, she said, “is probably not going to be educationally fruitful and a kid gets the mindset that I’m bad.
“Doing restorative justice within the school setting – to change behavior to get the child back with peers – is much better.”
Sherwood Foundation-supported Educare centers do not use suspension-expulsion for the same reasons.
Path of least resistance
Exclusionary discipline is even more problematic when applied arbitrarily or as an expediency.
“At times, I think suspension-expulsion is used to send a message to the parent the behavior is serious,” said CSI’s Habrock, adding, “Sometimes the center or school does not know what else to do to improve the behavior.”
Resources are available to assist educators and parents.
At CSI, Habrock said, “we did not suspend or expel kids, but we also did not know what to do with kids coming in our doors that had been expelled from other programs and had significantly challenging behavior. So, we started a program, KidSquad, to support these kids and get them prepared for the behavior expectations of kindergarten and the school setting.”
Child care centers can become last resort “babysitting” options for expelled elementary school children. Age and developmental-needs differences pose problems.
“I think our program continues to exist and maintain a wait list for services because challenging behavior is hard, overwhelming and frustrating – and teachers and parents don’t know what to do,” Habrock said.
Another early childhood focused training program, Rooted in Relationships, works to prevent suspension by coaching childcare providers to use the Pyramid Model – a positive behavioral intervention and support framework – and providing information about the harm suspension practices cause.
Habrock concedes educators must “balance keeping all children safe.”
Studies and parent testimonies, however, suggest many children get thrown out of school for behaviors denoted as “disrespect,” “insubordination” and “verbal conflicts” that pose no safety risk. The severity of other behaviors resulting in suspension, such as fighting, are open to interpretation. Thus, there’s momentum around Too Young to Suspend legislation that limits suspension-expulsion to only clear threats of physical danger. Nebraska State Sen. Megan Hunt is sponsoring the Too Young to Suspend Act in LB 165. It’s been referred to the Unicameral’s Education Committee.
A mishmash of procedures in private child care centers makes standardized suspension-expulsion rules difficult. Public schools, however, have structures, policies and government funding in place that provide framework and leverage for system-wide uniformity.
“I think we have really great evidence that pushing a student out of school is not good for that individual student, and it’s not good for the rest of the students either,” said Voices’ Juliet Summers. “One of the best predictors of student achievement for a school is not necessarily the poverty or crime rate of a neighborhood but rather how strong the relationships are that parents, administrators, teachers and students describe.”
Lack of staff training and resources may explain why some kids get suspended or expelled.
“Even in classrooms where teachers have bachelor degrees in early childhood education,” Habrock said, “they often have very little hands-on experience in preventing behavior and implementing strategies to improve behavior. That is changing some in our colleges and universities, but there is still more to be done.”
As more children present Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), some disruptive behavior may be rooted in trauma requiring professional mental health intervention.
“More than one child in a classroom with these types of experiences can overwhelm the capacities of even the best teachers,” Habrock said.
Just don’t expect easy answers for “a multi-layered issue,” she and other experts say.
Adequate training and resources are only part of it.
“Making adjustments to meet the individual needs of each child is the gold standard in early childhood education,” Habrock said. “Programs in our community like Early Head Start, Head Start and NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), accredited child care programs do this really well. Those programs often have additional resources like family support workers or lower teacher-child ratios to bridge home and school to learn the individual needs of each child. Programs without those resources have a more difficult time accommodating individual child needs.”
Early Buffett Childhood Institute founding Executive Director Sam Meisels said, “Almost always a situation that could lead to expulsion of a preschooler is an environmental problem. It’s a simple thing but a not-so-simple or unimportant thing. Often a teacher doesn’t know how to structure a physical space for preschoolers. To expel a child at that age is a failure on the part of the teacher. Mostly we can figure this thing out or get some help to figure it out.”
Said Habrock, “Nearly all early childhood experts agree play is how young children learn. But with the push for academics at earlier and earlier years, we see less and less time for things like center time and outdoor play.”
Making it personal
Educators believing they’ve failed a child is one thing. Parents having their child kicked out of school is another. Tunette Powell and her husband are well-educated, good-earning African-American parents of two young boys. The couple provide a safe, stable home, and yet their sons got suspended from a Bellevue preschool in 2014.
“If you looked at our situation you would say this would never happen – and here it happened. It was a shock and a wake-up call at the same time,” Powell said.
It evoked memories of her own elementary school suspension in her native San Antonio. The experience, she said, put her behind. Since her sons’ suspension, she gets triggered whenever their school calls.
Powell, a writer and public speaker, shared her family’s story in a blog that went viral. She instantly gained a national platform to address the issue. Today she’s Parent Engagement Coach at the UCLA Parent Project and a UCLA doctoral student in Urban Schooling. Her dissertation is based on interviews with black parents, including Omahans, who’ve had children suspended.
Powell was shocked again when she discovered how embedded racialized suspension is in early education.
“We always knew about K-12. For younger children the data is very new. However, we as a nation have been capturing data about this since the 1970s, so at this point we know there’s a problem. But I don’t think people expected the disparity would also be present for children as young as 3 and 4 years old.”
She traces the suspension epidemic and the disparity of its application to when integration introduced more black children to majority schools.
“It has its roots in desegregation and, if we want to go beyond that, we have to talk about the context in which black people were brought and put here in the first place. It’s always been about social control.”
Her thesis, she said, “looks at the damage done to the minds and spirits of black parents when they have a child suspended. They’re sharing some pretty heartbreaking and emotional things about how this is impacting their lives. I call it collective trauma.”
She’s been there herself.
“It’s my life. It’s one thing to read statistics but it’s another to hear stories. And this is where black parents are especially important. We have to be sharing our stories. These parents hurt. They’re embarrassed. They’re made to feel that if my child is in trouble then they’re a problem and that means I must have given birth to a problem. That’s the way we frame right now.
“It’s not to say black kids don’t present behavior issues. But when we see the disparities we have to be honest and say it’s probably not the child that’s the problem.”
Powell echoes others that school disciplinary actions can haunt youth into adulthood.
Omaha business owner David Mitchell dealt with “the negative results of elementary school suspension” into high school, when, he said, he was finally “comfortable exploring my scholastic abilities.”
“We know it’s an embarrassment for the child,” Powell said. “We know it severs early ties with peers and teachers. It’s completely disrupting to everything about the child’s life. It stigmatizes young people. Your suspension history record follows you in school the same way incarceration does when you’re job-seeking. Teachers are likely to see you through one lens only.”
Nelson Mandela principal Susan Toohey agrees. “We all come to our work with the lens with which we were given, and some of us need to change our lens.”
“We still need a lot of work in breaking down bias and implicit bias,” Juliet Summers of Voices said. “Teachers and administrators have huge hearts for their students, but all of us walk around with implicit biases drilled into us through our culture. Educators are not exempt.”
“Implicit bias is something we see in our work,” Habrock said. “We have done some community training-professional development on cultural competence. We also address implicit bias in our consultation with teachers. This spring we will bring a national expert on this topic to provide training to the KidSquad team and others to improve our skills at addressing implicit bias and disproportionate discipline.”
In schools with diverse students but predominantly white educators, “it’s inevitable biases and prejudices will be a factor,” said Gabrielle Gaines-Liwaru. The former OPS teacher seeks to “change the culture and climate of the public education tree that seems to drop many African-American students like bad apples.”
Summers believes bias is one piece of the situation.
“Another piece,” she said, “is that black students are more likely to attend under-resourced schools in a classroom where a teacher has more students to handle, sometimes more with higher, more various needs. In those environments teachers don’t have what they need to meet any behavioral challenges with the same level of patience and grace and welcoming arms.”
Buffett Early Childhood guru Sam Meisels said, “There are problems of identification with the authority figure who looks different and is different – some children coming from minority backgrounds may not have encountered a white authority figure previously.”
Given bias is real, Gaines-Liwaru said, “Building diversity understanding and cultural empathy through appropriate professional development for educators and support staff should be every urban school district’s mandate, and it should be on-going.”
For Gaines-Liwaru, remedying the “disproportionate suspension mess and injustice” should include engagement in curriculum students “can see themselves in.” She fears “It’s easier to put kids out of the classroom, document negative behaviors and allow suspensions to ensue than to individually research and design lessons that empower students in their racial-cultural identities.”
She advocates “putting resources towards diversifying teaching staff” and “utilizing restorative justice methods that teach kids healthy social skills and behavior management techniques versus suspending them.”
OPS has made diversifying its teacher-administrator ranks a priority. It contracts with the Minnesota Humanities Center for voluntary cultural competency training. The district’s plan to reduce disproportionate suspension among special-ed students includes closer partnerships with Project Harmony and other mental health resources. OPS is also working to implement a problem-solving model called Multi-Tiered Systems of Support for Behavior (MTSS-B) to more effectively and equitably address misbehavior and discipline.
“It’s not enough to have blacks in leadership roles,” said Tunette Powell. “We have a tendency to be content or complacent with that. We need to really push them. If you’re leading a district struggling with disproportionally, what are you going to do about it? We have to hold people accountable. We are so far beyond symbolism.”
If there’s to be change, Powell said, “black parents need to discuss their experiences and take those to school board and community meetings. We have to become the community leaders and activists. I think people don’t want to listen to black parents because often we don’t have a Ph.D. after our names. But we can’t ignore black parents’ voices anymore.
“I wish education officials would be bold enough to say that systemically we have failed black children. It’s the only way we can move forward.”
Omaha community activist Leo Louis II held fall public forums on school suspension after black parents asked him to be an advocate in dealing with OPS.
“Often times the parent is completely unprepared for what the school has planned for their child,” he said.
He’s concerned that terms associated with adult criminal allegations, such as “assault” and “abuse,” are used to describe some young children’s misbehavior.
The forums have yielded personal testimonies about suspension and alternatives to its practice.
“it’s been my task to educate the community this is not a unique situation to individuals and individual families but a systemic thing,” Louis said. “We’re seeking allies willing to have this conversation and to put in real work toward the solutions.”
One ally, Sharif Liwaru, was fired in December as director of OPS’ Office of Equity and Diversity after forwarding an email from Louis about a school suspension forum at North High to district principals. Liwaru said he didn’t direct or invite school officials to attend but merely shared the event notice. Two previous suspension forums were held at the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, for which Liwaru is president.
Louis led a silent protest of Liwaru’s firing at a Jan. 7 school board meeting.
The district will not comment on personnel matters.
Liwaru has not moved on from the suspension issue. He’s now executive director of the new grassroots Justice for Kids Initiative that seeks to reduce school suspensions. Organizers and supporters held a Feb. 3 launch to build awareness and raise funds.
He worries alternatives will receive short shrift as long “as educational exclusion is on the table.”
“We need to find alternatives to suspension that actually teach the appropriate behavior as an immediate response to violations and we need to have solutions that build relationships between students and teachers. Bigger than that, we have to have the difficult dialogue about racism and how it shows up here,” said Liwaru, whose wife is Gabrielle Gaines-Liwaru.
“Cooperative relationships and open communication between school, student and parent are fundamental to every child achieving his or her educational goals,” Summers said. “When a student is excluded from the school environment, particularly if strong lines of communication have not already been created, it can send the wrong message.”
Some suggest the jarring interruption of being severed from school contributes to truancy and drop-out behaviors. Once youth come in contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, this pattern can be a school-to-prison pipeline gateway. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said so in 2014.
“You talk about setting kids on a wrong pathway – it just adds to the trauma many children experience. The science is pretty clear,” said Buffett Early Childhood Fund President Jessie Rasmussen. “These things happening in the earliest years of a kid’s life have a direct connection to their trajectory for life. It doesn’t mean we can’t do interventions later, but it’s harder, more time and resource intensive and far too often not successful.”
The skew of blacks and Latinos facing exclusionary discipline mirrors that of individuals in detention and incarceration. The U.S. Office of Civil Rights reports that schools with Student Resource Officers have much higher arrests and referrals to law enforcement for black students than white students. A permanent police presence in schools makes children far more likely to be subject to school-based arrests for disciplinary matters than a generation ago, said ACLU Nebraska Legal Counsel Rose Godinez, “A school-based arrest is the quickest route from the classroom to the courthouse.”
ACLU Nebraska recommends “positive alternatives to exclusionary punishments” to improve student safety.
It’s clear to Powell and others that the same “racialized narratives” behind over-policing, profiling and criminalizing of adult black male scours in schools, where black boys are viewed as “older or less innocent.”
“Just as communities are exploring alternatives to detention, we must consider alternatives to suspensions-expulsions which push kids out and cause them to disengage with education,” said ReConnect Inc. Executive Director LaVon Stennis-Williams. Her program works with families who have contact with the justice system. She sees a direct correlation between exclusionary discipline and delinquency.
“Often what we label as a disciplinary problem is actually the child acting out because he or she is so far behind in school that learning is not making sense,” said Stennis Williams. “Some of this might be due to learning disabilities that go unmet. I have had youth sent to my program for day reporting due to long-term suspensions or expulsions who have gone months with no educational services. So the youth will eventually quit school at an early age and spiral in and out of the juvenile justice system until reaching the magic age to be charged as an adult.”
No one wants children’s welfare to get lost in the shuffle.
“Because a child can be disruptive for your whole class, it’s easy to say in the interest of all the other kids this kid’s got to go, What we should say is that in the interest of all kids all kids need to stay,” said Rasmussen. “This is not anything about the children. This is about decisions by adults, and that’s how we have to see it.
“Our job is to promote this child’s healthy growth and development. Our responsibility is to figure out how best to do that and what they need and to work in partnership with parents to accomplish that,” Rasmussen said. “It’s more important to get the support to the parents and the caretakers than to somehow penalize children.”
Meanwhile, Sharif Liwaru sounds a note of collective remediation. “Because this is so complex,” he said, “we must all take ownership.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.