SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - While their classmates were building block towers after nap time, many of the youngest students in the state of Louisiana were forced to stay home last year, because they were suspended from school.
In fact, data collected by the Louisiana Department of Education and obtained by KSLA reveals Louisiana administrators suspended 1,260 students in preschool, pre-K and kindergarten during the 2018-2019 school year.
Those numbers are alarming to education advocates who we interviewed for the KSLA original documentary, “Code of Conduct.”
“It’s hard to understand why you would need to suspend a four-year-old out of school,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of the public policy-focused nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It’s kind of hard to imagine."
We asked five of the parishes with the highest numbers of kindergarten suspensions for details on the offenses for which the students were suspended.
The most common reasons the schools gave are:
- Cuts, defaces, or injures any part of public school buildings/vandalism
- Disturbs the school or habitually violates any rule
- Willful disobedience
- Treats an authority with disrespect
- Injurious conduct or habits
- Continued open defiance
The rate of suspension for these young children hasn’t improved in recent years, according to the data. The number of out-of-school suspensions for students below first grade actually rose slightly last school year when compared to 2017-2018 data.
“Why would you even go that route with a child that young?" questions Jackie Lansdale, president of the Red River United and the Caddo Federation of Teachers.
“Is there something going on that you haven’t addressed? You want to find out if there something going on in their home life. Do they have a medical issue? Maybe they need glasses.”
Records show the Louisiana Department of Education’s Advisory Council on Student Behavior and Discipline (ACSBD) raised concerns about suspensions for young children as early as 2016.
Their annual report from that year says, “Some members of the ACSBD noted concern that thousands of children under 10 years old would be suspended at all, in lieu of an in-school consequence being implemented.”
The data that alarmed those members was from the 2015-2016 school year and showed about 8,000 students in third grade and below were suspended from school that year. That total has since dropped to about 6,700 students in 2018-2019. But Dr. Alan Coulter, a Louisiana-based psychologist and a member of the advisory council, says that’s still too high.
“Especially in the formative years, when children are trying to develop a sense of themselves, they need to experience success. They need to experience positive interactions," he says.
“When those interactions are negative — when they are punishing — that creates a psychological makeup that doesn’t allow that child to become a successful adult.”
Nine states and the District of Columbia have placed heavy restrictions on exclusionary discipline for elementary students in recent years. That includes Texas, which banned schools in 2017 from issuing out-of-school suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade in most cases.
“I think third grade is the earliest grade where suspension is appropriate,” says Dr. Lamar Goree, superintendent of Caddo Parish Schools.
More than 200 students younger than third grade were suspended in Caddo Parish last school year.
“When you hit third grade it should not be as easy to get sent home for suspension as it would be for a ninth or tenth grader,” says Dr. Goree.
But Louisiana lawmakers have yet to form a consensus on a law restricting out-of-school suspension for elementary school students in the state.
In 2015, a law was proposed by Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome — who was then a state senator — that would have prohibited schools from suspending or expelling students in the third grade and below. But the bill was amended prior to passing, and the scope was greatly reduced to only ban schools from suspending elementary students for willful dress code violations.
Rachel Gassert, policy director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, says the issue is controversial.
“There’s a desire to make sure that teachers and schools have as many tools in their toolbox as they can have," says Gassert.
"It’s been surprisingly hard to push back against those practices which seem like something that everyone could agree shouldn’t be happening.”
The data also reveals that, as in other grades, young children of color are much more likely to be suspended from elementary schools than white students. This disparity also exists for children in preschool.
A 2014 joint policy statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education highlighted the inequalities.
The announcement read in part, “Stark racial and gender disparities exist in these practices, with young boys of color being suspended much more frequently than other children.”
The statement went on to say, “These disturbing trends warrant immediate attention from the early childhood education fields to prevent, severely limit, and work toward eventually eliminating the expulsion and suspension of young children in early learning settings.”
In 2016, more than 30 organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Federation of Teachers, and American Psychological Association echoed those concerns in their own joint statement, saying, “We must continue to shine a light on data that inform our decision-making, while we work together to create systems, policies and practices that reduce disparities across race and gender, preventing and eventually eliminating expulsions and suspension in early childhood settings."
Advocates agree that the impact of exclusionary discipline on young children is especially acute.
“That decision to remove a child from the school setting carries a lot of consequences, especially at the elementary level,” said Victor Jones, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center in New Orleans.
“When you constantly punish a child, you criminalize them. When children are criminalized, it literally sets a dark path for their future,” he says.
These findings are the result of a months long investigation into school discipline practices. To see our full report, watch the KSLA original documentary, “Code of Conduct” Monday at 7:00 p.m. on KSLA.