The School-to-Prison Pipeline Starts in Preschool

This year, The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights released data collected from public schools in the 2013-2014 school year, which aimed to highlight equity and opportunity gaps in our nation’s public schools. One statistic further set in stone what too many parents and students already know through experience: black public preschool children are suspended at higher rates than whites. Specifically, “Black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white preschool children.”

Recently, a common explanation for this racial disparity in suspensions has been that of implicit bias. Center for Policing Equity (CPE) Cofounder and President Dr. Phillip A. Goff explains that we all have implicit bias to various degrees. CPE works collaboratively with law enforcement, school communities, and political stakeholders to identify ways to strengthen relationships with the communities they serve.  

In September, Yale Child Study Center released a report analyzing implicit bias in preschool, in which 132 preschool educators participated in an eye-tracking study. Participants watched a series of video clips and were told that researchers were tracking how accurately and quickly the teachers detected “challenging behavior.” The video clips each contained 4 children: one black boy, one white boy, one black girl, one white girl. In reality, none of the children displayed challenging behavior. With the eye-tracking component, researchers calculated the percentage of dwell time on each child over the percentage of dwell time across all children.

The researchers found that “early education staff tend to observe more closely Blacks, and especially Black boys when challenging behaviors are expected.” The report states:

Regardless of the nature of the underlying biases, the tendency to observe more closely classroom behaviors based on the sex and race of the child may contribute to greater levels of identification of challenging behaviors with Black preschoolers and especially Black boys, which perhaps contributes to the documented sex and race disparities in preschool expulsions and suspensions.

The report concludes, “Preschool expulsions and suspensions disproportionately deny access to early education to boys, Blacks, and especially Black boys.” The implicit bias was present in both black and white preschool teachers – “Biases are inherent attributes that all humans possess and form naturally through the course of everyday interactions and exposure to media”, researchers explain. The study cites other research which suggests that implicit biases may be reduced through interventions which address biases directly, or by increasing teachers’ empathy for children.

The lessons from research by both Dr. Goff with CPE and the Yale study, amongst others, explain that implicit bias exists within us all, and its consequences can be devastating.  

Advocacy organizations such as Racial Justice NOW! (RJN!) are working to ensure that exclusionary and zero-tolerance policies in schools are replaced by initiatives which protect the most vulnerable students in Ohio public schools, including working to change state law to eliminate the use of out-of-school suspensions for students in pre-kindergarten through third grade.  Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, Co-Founder and Executive Director of RJN! has become an outspoken organizer and tireless advocate for Black children after experiencing school pushout when her then 3 year-old son was expelled from preschool. After researching to file a civil rights complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, Zakiya realized that she and her son were not unique and that this was a national issue related to Black children and Black boys in particular.

The organization points out these startling statistics from the Ohio Department of Education: Currently, black students are 16% of Ohio enrollment, but over 50% of suspensions and expulsions; students with disabilities make up 15% of enrollment and 28% of suspensions. In the 2014-2015 school year, Ohio children in grades pre-K through 3rd grade received nearly 30,000 suspensions or expulsions. In the 2015-2016 school year, Black boys in pre-school were 10 times more likely to be suspended than white boys.

RJN! is working to amend House Bill 410. The bill, which passed through the Ohio House of Representatives earlier this year, prohibits schools from passing truancy problems to the court system for criminal punishment, and from suspending students who fail to attend class. Rather, schools are to provide an earlier notice to parents that students are missing class. RJN! explains, “The House-passed version of HB 410 is a strong step forward to increasing school connectedness for Ohio’s students. However, we believe that HB 410 is incomplete without addressing school discipline issues, which too often lead to student disengagement and dropout.”

Their suggested amendments to the bill (now being considered in the Senate) are the following:

  1. Amendment 2629 - Eliminate the use of out- of-school suspensions and expulsions for youth in third grade or younger. Suspensions and expulsions for children in this age group are especially devastating as early years of education form the foundation for youths’ relationships with schools and academic success.
  2. Amendment 2630 - Move away from a “one-size-fits-all” zero-tolerance discipline approach and toward a tiered discipline policy that appropriately responds to individual students’ behaviors and needs. Schools would implement age-appropriate social and emotional learning practices and adopt alternative discipline approaches, such as restorative justice practices, which will address underlying issues, help students change behavior, and create a safer and positive school climate.
  3. Amendment 2639 - Allow students who are suspended or expelled to make up and receive credit for school work they miss, which is prohibited under current law.
  4. Amendment 2605X4 - Give students a fresh start at the beginning of the school year by not allowing suspensions or expulsions given at the end of the prior school year to carry over into the current school year. Instead students to carry out community service for the remainder of their suspensions.

Students cannot learn if they are not in school, and the research shows that black boys are being disproportionally pushed out of public schools due to factors such as implicit biases starting in preschool. The evidence from sources such as the U.S. Department of Education, the Center for Policing Equity, and the Yale Child Study Center supports what advocates within organizations like Racial Justice NOW! have been fighting against. Let’s do our part to counter policies which can be clouted by implicit biases – let’s discuss these biases, and change zero-tolerance policies.

Like what you've read?

Then don't miss a thing. Join the thousands of students, parents, educators, and activists who already receive our latest updates and resources!