Holder, Duncan stunned by discipline figures

Survey reveals that thousands of preschoolers were suspended in 2011-12

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Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed shock at data released Thursday showing that thousands of preschool kids were suspended nationwide during the 2011-2012 school year. The suspensions fell heavily on black children, who represented 18 percent of preschool enrollment yet 48 percent of all suspensions.

“I was stunned — I was stunned — that we were suspending and expelling four-year-olds,” Duncan said at a Washington D.C. elementary school, where he and Holder discussed findings of the latest Civil Rights Data Collection by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The survey showed that nearly 5,000 preschool students were suspended in the 2011-12 academic year.

“This preschool suspension issue is mind-boggling,” Duncan said. “And we need to as a nation find a way to remedy that tomorrow.”

Duncan said training is needed at schools that suspend large numbers of kids at all grade levels to demonstrate a “better way” of handling problem behavior. “We know there is a correlation between out-of-school suspensions and ultimately locking people up,” Duncan said. “And folks don’t like it when we talk about it. But for far too many children and communities the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ is real.”

Holder said the findings of the data collection are “unacceptable. And it’s important to bear in mind … that these are not abstract statistics,” but rather hard data collected from schools.  

The racial disparities in preschool suspensions, Holder added, “reflect where we are as a society.”

“There are certain preconceptions that people have about kids of color,” he said. Kids can engage in “the kinds of things that kids normally do,” he said, and behavior can sometimes be “misconstrued if you deal with a child with a preconceived notion about that child.”

“We have to break through that. It means we have to train our teachers in ways that are sensitive to cultural differences,” Holder said. “There are a whole variety of ways (to respond to children) that we have so we don’t misunderstand behaviors.”

The collection of national data — accessible to the public online — came from every public elementary, middle and high school in the nation during the 2011-2012 school year; the scope of the data requested from schools was unprecedented. The database includes a trove of detailed information about access to college prep courses, access to counselors, classroom size, teacher pay and other subjects. The data is broken down, school by school, and by demographic groups.

The collection also drills down on a variety of school discipline practices — including the use of restraints — and reports the numbers of students who were referred to police officers.

Nationally, minority kids of all ages were subjected to suspensions and expulsions at a rate three times higher than their white peers. Black students, 16 percent of overall enrollment, were more than a quarter of students referred to law enforcement from schools that year and 31 percent of those arrested. Students with disabilities represented a quarter of kids arrested and referred to law enforcement although they were only 13 percent of the nation’s student population.

Young children enter school “from various types of backgrounds,” Holder said.

“But at the end of the day,” he said. “They’re four-year-olds. They’re five-year-olds. They’re six-year-olds. And when you see these disparate numbers … you have to wonder: What is it that we are doing? Why are we seeing these numbers? It’s not because these kids are fundamentally different. I think that’s the kind of things we have to understand. We are getting disparate treatment here.”

“That’s a painful thing for this nation to accept,” Holder said. “But unless we deal with these hard truths we are not going to ultimately come up with the kind of country we want to have.”

Holder is involved in Obama Administration initiatives announced this year to reform school discipline, as the Center for Public Integrity reported in January. Studies have linked out-of-school suspensions with increasing risks that students will drop out and get into trouble with law enforcement.

“Every data point (in the civil rights collection) represents a life impacted,” Holder said, “a future potentially diverted or derailed, and a young man or woman who was placed at increased likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system.”

Across the country, districts with high rates of out-of-school punishment have seen a large number of kids being forced to drop out — as the Center reported on farmworker kids in California — or forced into dubious at-home learning plans, as the Center also reported from California.

The Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, Catherine LLamon, said Thursday that the database collection has proved useful to detect districts where black children have been left out of college courses — because a principal didn’t think they were prepared to take such classes — and where children have been subjected to high levels of unaddressed sexual harassment. The collection is the “fullest, richest, most comprehensive” in history, Llamon said.   

“This data was meant for you and me,” Llamon added, urging the public to use it to scrutinize individual schools and districts and detect inequities that deserve to be addressed.