It started with a report to the state’s Office of the Child Advocate that a child had been expelled from preschool.
Jamey Bell, the child advocate, saw no reason why a child that young should be suspended, and wanted to know how widespread the problem was. She also had learned that a 7-year-old had been arrested while at school.
She would soon find out that there were 1,967 incidents of students age 6 and under that were suspended last school year — almost all of them black or Hispanic. According to a report from the Connecticut Department of Education, the number of students suspended is actually higher, but privacy issues restrict the state agency from releasing information that could identify unique student information.
“That’s a lot of kids… I do not think that [suspension] is an appropriate response” to students behaving poorly at school, Bell said. Excluding such young children from the classroom “seems to me a non-educational, non-therapeutic response for those who are way too young to be culpable.”
The leader of the state’s child protection agency, Joette Katz, agrees.
“I was shocked” by the statistic, the Department of Child and Families commissioner told a roomful of people at the state Capitol complex Friday. “Clearly when children are being suspended, something else is not being attended to.”
Officials say that bad behavior of children this young is most often a symptom of something else they experienced in their life.
“They are reactive,” said Bell.
“They are the victims of trauma,” adds Katz.
The district-by-district suspension data compiled by the Connecticut State Department of Education show some districts have much higher rates of suspensions . For example, New Haven had 89 incidents of students 6 years old and younger last year being suspended, while Waterbury, which has an almost identical student enrollment, had 173 suspensions.
Likewise Achievement First charter schools in Hartford suspended 114 students last year while Amistad charter schools in New Haven suspended 38.
Of the nearly 2,000 suspensions reported statewide, 1,161 were out-of-school suspensions and 806 were in-school-suspensions.
Michael Lawlor, the governor’s criminal justice policy advisor, said these high suspension rates are an indicator of weak leadership.
“It has to do with the culture in a school,” he said during the juvenile justice discussion Friday. “It’s not about the kids at that school. It’s about the policies in those schools” on handling discipline.
He points to a recent study published by the Council of State Governments that shows students who are suspended from school even once are exponentially more likely to repeat a grade or end up in the juvenile justice system and in jail.
This issue of appropriately handling students who get into trouble at school is not a new one. In 2005, the previous child advocate reported that 500 kindergarten students in the state were suspended or expelled in a school year.
A bill awaiting action by the legislature would require every district to clearly outline the role of school-based police officers to prevent students from being arrested for issues that could be handled by the school system. Child advocates also say that the educational needs of abused and neglected children in state custody are not being appropriately provided or monitored when they are expelled.
Katz said Friday that in reaction to these concerns she has recruited the state’s “best and brightest” lawyers to fight for these children in court — a coalition that has settled 50 education suits in the first two months.
But many of these suspension rates are the direct result of cash-strapped school districts that don’t have the resources to hire therapists and counselors to address these mental-health needs, said Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Children’s Committee.
“Schools are stressed,” said the Democrat from Meriden.