Why I worry about my preschoolers

By Abel Koury

I look up at the clock—it’s exactly 12:59 pm on Thursday. I collect my Mo Willems books and make my way to the Room 128 where I’ll spend 15 minutes with the coolest 3–5 year olds you’ll ever meet. As they sit on the story time rug, I look at their bright and curious faces, some white, some brown, all adorable. These kiddos attend an exceptional preschool where the administration doesn’t believe in suspension or expulsion. Unfortunately, research tells us that this is not as common as one would think. In fact, as of 2016, the equivalent of roughly 250 preschoolers were suspended or expelled each day. On this particular Thursday, a few of the kids told me that it was their last day of preschool—the babies were movin’ on up to kindergarten. (Another one of the kids invited me to their next birthday party, but this detail is only provided to establish that I’m a preschool rock star.)

I have mixed feelings knowing that some of my favorite tiny humans will be moving from a high-quality preschool environment to one of the surrounding kindergartens. And here are a few reasons why:

The Kirwan Institute at The Ohio State University has done extensive research on the role of implicit bias and perceptions of student behavior. Some of their recent work highlights that Black, non-Hispanic students in Ohio experience the highest discipline rates, with rates 5 times higher than the lowest disciplined group. Data from 2016-2017 show the trend worsening—Black, non-Hispanic students in Ohio are roughly 6 times as likely to receive an out of school suspension compared to White, non-Hispanic students.

Figure 1. Out of school suspensions from the 2016-2017 school year for the state of Ohio by student race/ethnicity. This data was obtained from the Ohio Department of Education Interactive Report Card. Abbreviations: NH = Non-Hispanic; AI/AK = American Indian/Alaska Native; Pac. Isl = Pacific Islander.

Now, consider the fact that Black, non-Hispanic students only make up 16.7% of students in Ohio schools. Figure 2 below shows the percentage of enrollment in Ohio schools during the 2016-2017 school by student race; the orange bar shows the number of students per 100 who received out of school suspensions by the same racial subgroup. Let’s imagine a classroom in Ohio. Based on the numbers in Figure 2, a typical classroom of 30 might look something like: 5 Black, 2 Hispanic, 2 Multiracial, and 21 White students. If 34.8 in 100 Black students are suspended in 2016-2017, that means that we can expect 34.8% of the 5 Black students in our imaginary class to be suspended (or roughly 2 of the 5). To say that Black students are overrepresented among those receiving out of school suspensions really doesn’t do it justice—justice, yes, that’s the key word. And Ohio is not an outlier by any means—our work in Pennsylvania show that Black student suspensions were 4 to 8 times higher than the rates for the rest of the student body. The same is true in Portland and San Francisco as well.

Figure 2. This graph shows the percent of students of each race/ethnicity category as well as their rate of out of school suspensions from the 2016-2017 school year for the state of Ohio. This data was obtained from the Ohio Department of Education Interactive Report Card. Abbreviations: NH = Non-Hispanic; AI/AK = American Indian/Alaska Native; Pac. Isl = Pacific Islander.

Kirwan Institute also highlights that misbehavior in students of color is handled differently than the same offense in White, non-Hispanic students. For instance, fighting/violence was met with expulsion from school 33% of the time for Black students, 21% of the time for Hispanic students,  and 13% of the time for White, non-Hispanic students. When the same offense results in different disciplinary actions, we have to ask ourselves: why are black and brown children being expelled from school at nearly twice the rates of white children for the same behavior? If that seems eerily similar to the oft-reported findings that Black men get longer sentences than white men for the same crime, that’s because it is.

If you’ll allow me to extrapolate, I’d like to bring the attention to a place that these conversations don’t tend to go: recess. There isn’t a lot of data, but the data we have suggests that Black and Brown students are less likely to go to schools where they get daily school recess. Now, even in schools where they get recess, these kids are more likely to have recess taken away for misbehavior. We talk about the role of implicit bias in racial disproportionality in school discipline; we talk about the role of school discipline as a gateway into the school-to-prison pipeline. I wonder if another place implicit bias is “being implicit” is in these minor infractions that relate to children having recess taken away. If missing recess is linked to lower school engagement and we know school engagement is one of the strongest predictor of high school completion, I wonder if missed recess is the cracked sidewalk leading to the gateway.

So, yes, I’m worried for my preschoolers going off to kindergarten where 5% (84,000) of kindergarteners were suspended in Ohio schools in 2016-2017. Likely for “misbehavior” or perhaps more appropriately, “misbehavior while being a child of color”.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity was established in 2003 as a center for interdisciplinary research at The Ohio State University. The Kirwan Institute works to create a just and inclusive society where all people and communities have opportunity to succeed.