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When kindergartens expel black kids, what do they learn next?

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Educators must be banned from applying out of school suspensions on our youngest kids.

Action must be taken when more more than 7,400 Louisiana children from kindergarten to third grade are suspended for loose charges like “willful disobedience” (aka being a kid). The state’s black families are feeling the brunt of those suspensions. Black students represented 44 percent of kids in all grades last year but received 71 percent of all expulsions.

Last week, a Louisiana state bill that would ban suspensions among young children for low-level violations took its first step in committee and it will move up to the full Senate for approval. But the bill met with considerable resistance, with the Louisiana Association of Principals, Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools all opposing it.

Louisiana educators aren’t the only ones resistant to change. In fiscal 2013–14, the Office of Civil Rights “received more than 580 complaints brought by parents, students, or other individuals concerned about possible civil rights violations involving school discipline systems.” Blacks make up 16 percent of all students in the U.S. but receive 33 percent of all suspensions (single) and 34 percent of all expulsions. These findings moved Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder to release a 2014 package to guide schools in creating discipline policies that respect students’ civil rights.

Suspension and expulsion only mirror the criminal justice system’s efforts to remove people from society. What lessons about appropriate school behavior can teachers really teach when students are out of schools? Educators must learn how to untangle school discipline policy from zero-tolerance in policing, or the next uprising we see might be around a school. For many students, the doors remain closed after the riots are over.

Related: How schools can lower suspension rates and raise graduation rates

When I was an administrator of a charter school network in New Orleans, I heard principals across the system spew a widely held rationale for suspending students. Principals told me they needed to be able to send strong messages in order for students to understand consequences of their behaviors for things like fighting, stealing or drug use. “Tough love” was also required to teach students who repeatedly violated uniform, lunchroom or hall walking policies. Suspension was the ultimate form of tough love. It was assumed the best and fastest way to teach students consequences and develop a school culture conducive for learning.

The trendy phrase “sweating the small stuff ” became the jargon leaders used to convey a level of seriousness about educating and disciplining students. If you sweat the small things, suspending and expelling students is accepted as collateral damage from building a strong academic school culture.

The word “small” could have been referring to early childhood students in the sweating the small stuff rhetoric. Suspending children has become so normal that thousands of early childhood students are suspended for days at a time.

In spite of its popular use, suspension and expulsion are not effective means for redirecting behavior. Students lose valuable classroom time. Suspension and expulsion increase likelihood for dropping out and people with limited means are burdened with finding suitable daycare.

Related: Schools are doling out suspensions “like Tic Tacs”

What the research doesn’t say is that suspending and expelling children may provide some short-term benefits to teachers, leaders and the overall school performance score. Schools use suspensions to make parents confront student behavior with an administrator or teacher. Repeated suspensions may generate the desired outcome of counseling out the child all together. Over time the reputation of being hard (on black people) discourages certain families from enrolling a child in a school.

However, when kids are not in school, they’re learning something. Who’s teaching students and what lessons are they getting?

I co-wrote the report, Building an Inclusive, High-Skill Workforce for New Orleans Next Economy from the Greater New Orleans Data Center, which found that 14,000 youths between the ages of 16 and 24 in the New Orleans metro are neither enrolled in school nor employed. Disconnected youth is the latest tag used to describe this horrible state of anomie. In addition, one in seven black men are in prison or are on parole. How did that number become so large in Louisiana?

Related: Pipeline to Prison: How the juvenile justice system fails special education students

In the 1980s, police originally used zero-tolerance – the practice of punishing any law breaking, regardless of the scope of the offense or extenuating circumstances – as a drug enforcement tool that was to be applied at the state and federal levels. Bolstered by broken window theory, which was developed in schools of criminology, zero- or no-tolerance aims to deter major crime by vigorously enforcing minor ones.

For example Eric Garner, New Yorker whose killing at the hands of police, had been arrested more than 30 times, often for selling loose cigarettes or “loosies” as they are commonly called. Clearly, the prior arrests didn’t compel Garner to stop selling cigarettes, and it certainly didn’t make the neighborhood safer for Garner. However, NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly attributes zero-tolerance policies to an overall reduction in violent crime.

Better education prevents crime not more arrests or suspensions.

The American Civil Liberties Union defines the school-to-prison pipeline as “the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” This pipeline starts in Kindergarten. Louisiana ranks number four in the county in the number of early childhood student the state expels. And race factors in on who gets removed from schools.

Related: How to keep kids with special needs out of prison and in middle school

Students and families, particularly black families, can’t wait for schools to change themselves. Just like we can’t wait for police to change themselves. So it’s discouraging that Louisiana Association of Principals, Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools have found common ground on suspending students.

The heat of black spring may nudge the development of more logical and supportive ways of redirecting student misbehaviors. Black spring (#blackspring) – a spinoff of Arab Spring, a groundswell of protest in the Middle East – is change the criminal justice system. The protests surrounding the deaths of unarmed blacks by the police and others are illuminating the extent to which we’ve criminalized black people. But the criminalization of black people starts at much younger ages.

Let’s rid ourselves of the school’s unjust enforcement practices. Suspension and expulsions must end at the lower grades.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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