As shocking as it sounds, children as young as pre-school and kindergarten can be and are suspended from school each year, and in fairly sizable numbers. Despite the legislature’s effort in 2015 to largely eliminate the suspension and expulsion of children in preschool through second grade, during the 2018-19 school year (the last full school year before COVID-19 closed the school house doors for so many), there were still almost 1,000 very young children suspended from school.
These are children ages 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 years old. And they are mostly Black and brown children. In fact, while the state has consistently found that non-white children are more likely to be suspended from school, even for the same behaviors as white children, there is actually no age group that suffers this racial injustice more acutely than our littlest ones. In this year of painful and long-needed reckoning with corrosive systemic racism, we must name these harms for what they are: the discriminatory impact of suspension practices in Connecticut constitute a civil rights violation, and the state must urgently address it.
Despite persistent attention from the State Department of Education, these exasperating, harmful and discriminatory practices persist. The legislature must ban the suspension and expulsion of our youngest children. Not near-ban it as it did in 2015, but get rid of it altogether. And we must do so by ensuring that teachers are given the supports they actually need to help children who may need help the most! As so many educators know only too well, very young children who act out in school are most often in need of support themselves, not shaming and exclusion.
We know that kicking a small child out of school simply does not work. It harms the child, ostracizes him from the classroom, burdens the family, and does nothing to help the teacher when the child returns or address the root of the child’s behavior. Suspending a kindergartener tells the child that they are unwelcome in their school community. And suspension offers the teacher nothing, no help, no support, no resources.
We can do better, and even better, we have the tools to do. ESSERS-2 money can and should be used to advance proven methods for decreasing the use of exclusionary discipline and addressing the root causes of a child’s behavior. These methods and interventions include: strategies for family engagement, increasing access to and collaboration with community mental health resources, professional development for school staff, and alternative in-school disciplinary practice, strategies, and interventions.
To support the school-community partnership approach, we need to 1) invest in the Early Childhood Consultation Partnership (an evidence-based consultation program for young children with mental health issues that also supports the teacher and whole classroom environment); 2) pilot an extension of this model to early elementary age in the districts where these children are most likely to be suspended; 3) invest in effective school-based trauma-informed initiatives such as Bounce Back and CBITS, 4) scale up the school-community provider partnerships that offer case management and clinical support for high-needs children; and 5) ensure our state Medicaid plan includes early-childhood mental health supports. Additionally, we need to bolster neighborhood assets and natural supports that strengthen the pool of diverse local resources in communities of color.
The time is ripe to address this urgent civil rights issue. This January, our state’s Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee (JJPOC) voted on language that would ban suspensions for children in preschool through grade two, save those required by federal law, which became part of House Bill 6667. Unfortunately, this bill did not survive through the Judiciary Committee in tact– and for unknown reasons, this ban was one of the provisions removed. We recently wrote a letter, signed by a dozen coalition organizations, urging these legislators to amend the bill before it is voted on. The vote should go forward any day now. The time to make this change is now.
Our children have faced so much adversity in the past year and need the consistency and support of their school communities now more than ever. As a recent national report conducted by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA summarizes:
Coming on the heels of a massive loss of instructional time, and of mental health and special education supports and services, we argue… that the data describing the high rates of lost instruction and the inequitable disparate impact of suspensions in these times of extreme stress should compel educators across the nation to do more, once students are allowed to return, to reduce disciplinary exclusion from school (iv).
We must first take a stand to ensure that our youngest learners can stay in school. Our children and teachers deserve our best effort here.
Kathryn Scheinberg Meyer is a Medical-Legal Partnership Attorney at the Yale Child Study Center for Children’s Advocacy. State Rep. Robyn Porter of New Haven represents the House 94th District. Sarah Eagan is Connecticut’s Child Advocate.