BLACK VOICES
07/28/2014 02:52 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2014

The School-To-Prison Pipeline Can Start Even Before Kindergarten, Mother Points Out

Juan Silva via Getty Images

An essay that appeared recently in The Washington Post has brought renewed attention to discipline disparities taking place across all school levels, even in preschool. In the essay, black mother Tunette Powell wrote that her two preschool-aged sons have been suspended from schools a total of eight times, and she wonders if these suspensions might be the result of unintentional biases against black students.

"The problem is not that we have a bunch of racist teachers and administrators. I believe most educators want to help all children. But many aren’t aware of the biases and prejudices that they, like all of us, harbor, and our current system offers very little diversity training to preschool staff," wrote Powell.

Powell's essay was grounded in personal experience, but also draws from U.S. Department of Education data. Using this data, Powell points out that even though black students accounted for only 18 percent of preschoolers in the 2011- 12 school year, 42 percent of these students were suspended once that year, and 48 percent received multiple suspensions.

The graphics below break down the trend:

In Omaha, Nebraska, where Powell lives, eight preschool students were suspended at least once during 2011 - 12 from schools in the Omaha metro area, according to Department of Education data. Overall, the department found that 8,000 public preschool students across the country were suspended at least once during that time.

In a separate essay Powell penned for The Omaha World-Herald, she noted that white students in her sons' preschool classes were not being suspended for similar behaviors.

"One after another three white parents told me about the preschool fights and disciplinary problems their children were having. The most startling thing they admitted was that none of their children had been suspended," wrote Powell.

Indeed, a 2005 report from Walter S. Gilliam, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the director of the school's Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, looked at preschool expulsions and found that black students were more often subjected to the harshest punishments. He found that black preschool students attending state-funded programs were more than five times more likely to be expelled than Asian-American children and two times as likely to be expelled than white and Latino children.

At the time, Gilliam found varying factors which made teachers more likely to expel students. For example, the longer the preschool day, the more likely a teacher was to expel a child for behavior.

"Expulsion is not a child behavior. It is an adult decision," Gilliam said, according to Education Week.

On the bright side, at least some places are taking steps to potentially prevent disparate preschool suspensions. In D.C., a city council member recently introduced a piece of legislation that would ban preschool suspensions in most circumstances.

D.C. is disproportionately suspending the kids who most need to be in a supportive, structured school environment,” said Eduardo Ferrer of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, an organization that advocates for juvenile justice reforms, according to The Washington Post. “So, basically, schools are excluding kids who have experienced various levels of trauma instead of acting as a protective factor from trauma.”

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