STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Are preschoolers too young to be expelled? It's happening, a lot.

yellow chair in the rain
James Nord

We're starting to look into why certain kids are getting suspended from school more often than others, namely African-Americans, Latinos, students with disabilities, and low-income white students.

It’s not because these kids are worse than others or have taken misbehavior to new levels.

Instead, disturbingly, it’s because these kids are who they are---African-American, Latino, in special education, or low income. Closing the gap in achievement won’t happen if kids from different backgrounds are disciplined differently based on race, income, or other factors.

But even more disturbing, is the rise in preschool suspensions. Pre-K suspensions from state-funded program are three times higher than for K-12

Older preschoolers, African-Americans, and boys are all represented at higher rates than their counterparts. What chance do kids have if they're being tracked as troublemakers even before they enter the education system?

Preschool is meant to socialize kids so that they learn how to behave. Kicking them out at that age merely sets the stage for writing them off before they’ve even learned to read.

And does this kind of discipline even work?

One brief on reducing the likelihood of preschool expulsions claims putting kids out of school hasn't been proven to be effective in reducing behavioral problems. A report from the Michigan Bar Journal predicts the likely path from school suspension is entering the “prison pipeline" of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The state pays between $250-500 per day to incarcerate each young person. 

These students sometimes misbehave in school, but they’re faring  worse in the long-term impacts of disparate disciplinary policies than students who are not disabled, black, Latino, or working-class. They’re being suspended instead of disciplined in another way. Or they lack adult advocates who can step in and question whether learning disabilities, or pre-existing behavioral problems for preschoolers, help explain their misconduct.

What can be done to both discipline these kids and keep them in school?

In January, Ann Arbor Public School Superintendent Patricia Green proposed a 23-point plan to close the discipline gap in her district. The foundation of the plan is greater awareness of bias in deciding which students receive disciplinary action. More data will also be collected to  get a better sense of policies in need of correcting.

Other researchers propose cultural sensitivity training as key to helping teachers discern when student misbehavior might be attributed to causes other than willful disobedience.

Contradictions in outcomes, however, still go unaddressed by these solutions. School districts are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to hold a manifestation determination review. Depending on the outcome of that review, school districts must develop a behavior intervention plan as an alternative to suspension. If students of color are "over-identified" for special education, why are so many kids still put out of school rather than having their cases reviewed for an alternative education plan under IDEA?

Schools are also required to conduct a search to identify kids with disabilities. Does a failure to conduct these types of searches mean higher rates of suspension? School districts neglecting aspects of the IDEA should come up with some way to discipline kids, but also make sure they have the opportunity to change their behavior while continuing to learn.

The knock-on effect of having policies like the IDEA just for the sake of policy are huge. Kids with learning disabilities or treatable behavior problems go undiagnosed and, like Jane Zehnder-Merrell from the Michigan League for Public Policy says, “We push kids out of school much quicker, and for much longer times and for much less serious offenses than other states do. Once kids get pushed out of the system there are not easy ways back in.”

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