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OPINION: Let’s never see another first-grader in handcuffs

It is far past time to end the school-to-prison pipeline that starts in early childhood

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Two first-graders in Florida are not the same children today as they were last month. Consider the distress, fear and confusion that being forcibly taken, handcuffed and driven away from your school by a police officer would cause in any 6-year-old you know. Imagine it’s your child, your grandchild.

We both worked in the Obama administration, one of us as a senior policy advisor for early childhood development, and the other as a deputy assistant to the president and policy lead on criminal justice reform. Though we shared an office suite at the White House, our work worlds rarely collided. The main exception? School discipline, an issue that brings together two topics that should be separate: early childhood and criminal justice.

Last month, our worlds collided again. Two 6-year-old black children were arrested for incidents in their first-grade classroom in Florida. The officer involved in the incident was fired. But that doesn’t erase the trauma that those children faced and will continue to face. It doesn’t fix the system that enabled the officer’s behavior.

Related: TEACHER VOICE: Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline with ‘windows and mirrors’ for black boys

After months of operating in our own “lanes,” we got in touch with each other and shared our reactions to the story.

Criminalizing the developmentally appropriate behavior of  black children is something that’s been happening for generations. In past years, there have been other well-publicized cases of school-resource officers handcuffing children whose hands are too small for handcuffs, putting children small enough to require a booster seat in patrol cars and driving them to the police station.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice reports that more than 230,000 children aged 14 and under were arrested in 2017, although the office does not publicly report data broken down into smaller age groups.

The disproportionately harsh discipline that black children encounter often begins when children are literally in — or just transitioning out of — diapers.

In fact, data indicate that preschoolers are expelled from their learning settings at three or four times the rate of children in grades K-12, and that black preschoolers are more than three times as likely to be suspended than their white peers. From this early age, and across the entire K-12 continuum, black children are disproportionately the victims of exclusionary discipline. And yet there is no evidence that black children have worse behavior than peers.

There is research, however, to indicate that when presented with identical behavioral records, teachers are more likely to rate the behavior of black children as more problematic and recommend harsher punishments. Studies have found that black children are also more often disciplined for subjective behaviors (e.g., disrespect, defiance) that are at the discretion of adult decision-makers, while white children are more likely to be disciplined for objective offenses (e.g., smoking).

Related: A charter school faces the ugly history of school choice in the Deep South

We’ve seen consent decrees between the U.S. Department of Justice and communities due to this very issue — cases in which black children are disciplined more harshly and more often, and are subject to longer suspensions, than their white peers for similar behaviors, even when the children were at the same school, of the same age and had similar disciplinary histories.

The racial disproportionality in school expulsion looks remarkably similar to the disproportionality in imprisonment rates. Federal data from 2014 indicate that black children made up 33 percent of all children suspended, while a recent Pew Research Center analysis found that black adults make up 33 percent of the total prison population. These men and women are in prison not solely due to a broken criminal justice system, but also to a society that continuously criminalizes children for being children — if their skin happens to be black or brown.

The school-to-prison pipeline is alive and well. And it starts in early childhood.

During our time in the Obama administration, we did extensive work on school discipline. The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services joined forces to release the first policy statement to address exclusionary discipline in early learning settings. We worked with Congress to secure more funding for early childhood mental-health support. The Departments of Justice and Education came together to issue guidance on school discipline reform. We brought together school leaders from across the country to share best practices.

It wasn’t enough for us to stress that children shouldn’t be expelled; we were sadly forced to add that children shouldn’t be arrested either. An astounding 33 states don’t have a minimum age for criminal liability. That means it’s legal to prosecute a 5-year-old in juvenile court. In the states that do have minimums, the policies are barely better. South Carolina, for example, has a minimum age. It is 6. In another five states, the age is 7.

In a promising move, New York City recently updated a Giuliani-era policy that gave police officers the ability to arrest any child, for any behavior, with a new policy that says police officers should not arrest children for “low-level offences” such as spitting or disorderly conduct, and that school officials should not call law enforcement for code-of-conduct violations like tardiness or dress-code violations. This policy change is part of a more comprehensive effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio to curb the school-to-prison pipeline and reform school discipline in the city.

The incidents in Florida shake the conscience, but are less surprising given the Trump-DeVos agenda to shift away from addressing the school-to-prison pipeline. Last December, the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era school discipline guidance, misleadingly citing school safety concerns. This effort came after the U.S. Department of Education made clear that civil rights enforcement isn’t a priority.

Related: Cash flow alone won’t reverse the school to prison pipeline

The president’s budget asked for a decrease in funding for civil rights enforcement. In just the first two years of the Trump administration, the Office for Civil Rights saw a 12.5 percent drop in full-time employees. The Education Department also instituted a new protocol for reviewing cases that resulted in the dismissal of hundreds of potentially serious complaints and made the policy decision to avoid looking at systemic issues and biases surrounding complaints.

In its latest move, the Education Department has proposed to reduce and fundamentally change the Civil Rights Data Collection. Most concerning is its proposal to stop collecting preschooler enrollment data by race, which would significantly hinder our ability to assess access to opportunity for our nation’s youngest learners. It is much easier to hide facts than to deal with them.

This continues the not-so-covert strategy of Trump and DeVos to ignore racial disparities and perpetuate policies that have a disproportionately negative effect on students of color. These backward policies don’t make schools safer. They do, however, enable — and even encourage — the types of incidents that we saw in Florida last month.

Despite the incessant attacks on students’ civil rights from the highest levels, how can we prevent more 6-year-olds from being criminalized?

States and early childhood systems should ban expulsions and suspensions from the early years through the early grades, and significantly limit such punishments in the upper grades. Kicking preschoolers out of school does the exact opposite of what early education purports to do: Prepare children for school. The federal government and states should get serious about funding interventions that support social and emotional development, like early childhood mental-health consultation and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, both of which have been proven to reduce exclusionary discipline.

To address the specific issue of racial disparities in discipline, however, schools, districts and states must attend to the biases that fuel them — from implicit bias at the individual teacher, administrator or school-resource officer level to systemic biases in policies and funding.

One of the most powerful tools to identify and address biases at the systemic level is disaggregated data. The first publication of preschool suspension data released by the Education Department in 2014 prompted policy change at the federal, state and local levels. Since then, over 30 states have passed legislation on the issue.

On the criminal justice side, states should raise the minimum age for criminal liability. Some reforms are complicated. This one is a no-brainer. Funding should prioritize school counselors over school-resource officers. In general, school-resource officers should be better trained and specifically prohibited from addressing in-school conduct that doesn’t risk serious injury to students or staff. And very young children should never be arrested or otherwise introduced to the juvenile justice system.

It’s time we examine the full context of the school-to-prison pipeline and close the cracks that have been intentionally made to trap black and brown children. We must continue the fight to right the perpetuated wrongs of decades past, while also actively pushing back against the new wrongs perpetrated by the nation’s highest education and law-enforcement officials.

We are dear friends, but we do not want our professional worlds to continue colliding. We do not want hear “early childhood” and “criminal justice” in the same sentence.

Let children learn, let educators teach, and let mental-health professionals support both children and teachers. And let’s make it clear to police officers that they will not be police officers for long if they arrest another 6-year-old. The firing of the Florida police officer involved in last month’s incident is a good start.

This story about the school-to-prison pipeline that starts in early childhood was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Shantel Meek is a professor of practice and founding director of the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University. She previously served in the Obama administration as senior policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the White House.

Roy L. Austin Jr. is a partner in the law firm Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, a former deputy assistant to the president for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity, and a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Shantel Meek

Shantel Meek is professor of Practice and Founding Director of the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University. She previously served in the Obama Administration… See Archive

Roy L. Austin Jr.

Roy L. Austin Jr. is a partner at the law firm, Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, a former deputy assistant to the President for the Office… See Archive

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