While racial disparities are a hallmark of the criminal justice system, a growing body of research shows that bias and unequal punishment start as early as pre-kindergarten.
A new report from Texans Care for Children underscores the problem. The advocacy group found that during the 2017-18 school year, Texas schools suspended students between pre-K and second grade more than 70,000 times. Black boys, children in foster care, and students in special education classes were disproportionately suspended.
“Some of this is just pure bias that is implicit and needs to be addressed,” David Feigen the group’s early childhood policy associate, told the Observer, “but this is also about needs that are going unmet.” The numbers suggest that schools harshly punish black boys while also failing some of their other most vulnerable students, he says, just one of manyways the state has failed those children.
A growing number of advocates have called on lawmakers to curb the use of suspensions, especially in early grades, as a way to shrink the school-to-prison pipeline. In 2017, advocacy groups successfully lobbied the Texas Legislature to pass HB 674, a law effectively banning out-of-school suspensions for the state’s youngest students except in extremely limited circumstances (like a kindergartener bringing a gun to school). According to research by Texans Care for Children, out-of-school suspensions for pre-K through second grade students have dropped precipitously as a result—from 36,475 in the 2015-16 school year to 7,640 in 2017-18.
In-school suspensions for Texas’ youngest children, however, have stayed relatively flat—more than 62,000 in the 2017-18 school year. The group’s research also shows that some districts are more likely to punish their youngest students. In East Texas, Jasper ISD issued 92 in-school suspensions to pre-K students in the 2017-18 school year, despite a pre-K enrollment of only 122, giving the district the highest suspension rate for that age in the state. Killeen ISD, which subjects students participating in theater or any other extracurricular activity to random drug testing, issued about half of the state’s in- and out-of-school suspensions for pre-K students, despite representing less than 1.6 percent of the state’s pre-K enrollment.
Jasper ISD officials couldn’t be reached for comment. In an email, Eric Penrod, Killeen ISD’s deputy superintendent, said the district is working to reduce suspensions. Penrod said that last year the district had a total of four out-of-school suspensions for pre-K to second grade students; it issued more than 500 the year before. “We continue to work with parents and campuses to better understand the whole child and identify all variables when approaching challenging student behaviors,” Penrod said in an email.
Feigen says suspensions at such an early age are a missed opportunity to address whatever problems might be causing a student’s misbehavior. The report asks state and local officials to better monitor student discipline and calls for more effective strategies, like better support services for students and teachers.
“Suspensions are not an effective strategy for managing behavior, especially when we’re talking about four- and five-year-olds,” Feigen said. “It interrupts their education right as they’re starting and tells them they don’t belong.”