Dept. of Education: Black preschoolers far more likely to be suspended than white counterparts

Although black children only represent about 18 percent of the students enrolled in preschool, according to a study released on Friday by the Department of Education's Civil Rights division, more than half of students suspended on multiple occasions are black.

The study -- which includes 15 years of data collected from all of the nation's 97,000 schools -- indicates that the pattern of race-based inequality that begins even earlier than previous studies have suggested.

"Fourth grade failure syndrome" -- in which achievement among black male students begins to lag as teachers' perception of them shift from impressionable boys to "the would-be criminal, the oversexed, great athlete, and [the] academically unsuccessful" -- has already been well-documented by academics. This new study by the Department of Education suggests that the "school-to-prison pipeline" begins even earlier, at the preschool level.

The "school-to-prison pipeline" is educational shorthand for a series of statistics about the relationship between academic failure and future incarceration. For example, a student who drops out of high school in the tenth grade is three times more likely to end up in prison, and suspension is one of the "push effects" that compel students to drop out. The more often a student is suspended, the more likely he or she is to drop out, and one of the key future indicators of misbehavior is missing school. So the earlier and more often a student is student is suspended, this theory holds, the more likely the student is to end up incarcerated.

The Department of Education study did not track what behaviors a preschooler engaged in that warranted suspension, but academic research suggests that while white students are suspended for "observable offenses" -- such as fighting or the use of obscenity -- black students are suspended for "less objective offenses" like "disrespect, noisiness, or defiance." Because these offenses are more subjective, teachers' perception of them is more likely to be influenced by stereotyping or implicit bias.

Attorney General Eric Holder expressed his concern about the report's findings. "This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool," he wrote in a statement. "Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed. This administration is moving aggressively to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in order to ensure that all of our young people have equal educational opportunities."

Leticia Smith-Evans, interim director of education practice at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told The New York Times that seeing "that young African-American students — or babies, as I call them — are being suspended from pre-K programs at such horrendous rates is deeply troubling."

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