The discipline divide

Suspended countless times as a child, this professor is tackling racial disparities in preschool discipline

Rosemarie Allen knows that black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from preschool and the K-12 system.

As the former director of the state’s Division of Child Care and now as a professor of early childhood education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, she’s worked to address the issue for years. But she also experienced the phenomenon firsthand while growing up in California.

She talked with Chalkbeat about her own experience with school discipline, how unconscious prejudice impacts teachers and what can be done to address suspensions and expulsions in early childhood settings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get interested in the topic of suspensions and expulsions?

I was suspended from school from the time I started kindergarten…at least five to seven times a year. I was expelled from three schools. It was the strangest thing because I knew instinctively I wasn’t bad and I couldn’t figure out why I kept getting in trouble.

I was really curious…Digging a big giant hole in the middle of the playground because the teacher said China was at the other end. Taking off all the baby dolls’ heads to see how the eyes worked.

After years of getting in trouble, what was the dynamic between you and your teachers?

After awhile I didn’t try anymore. I knew what they expected and we all resented each other. One time, we were having a math test and the teacher gave me the lecture: “If you get out of your seat just one time for any reason, you are going to get a big fat F. Do you understand?”

I took the test and finished really fast and I don’t know if I dropped my pencil or I threw my pencil, (but) I got up and got it. She came over and she put a big fat F on my paper. I was about 10.

By this time we were already in a power struggle. So, I said, “That’s OK. You know I got an A and I know I got an A.” So I took the F and (turned it) into an A and that infuriated her. She said, “If it goes in my grade book, it’s an F.” And with a red marker (she) put an F in the grade book. Me, being the kid I was, took the grade book and threw it out the window.

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Given your history of suspensions and expulsions as a kid, how did you overcome that negative trajectory?

I had the most amazing, supportive extended family. Even when I was in trouble they always made me know I was smart. Now, when I did something wrong, when I got home I was grounded, but it didn’t define me.

How did your perceptions of your early struggles with discipline change when you started your doctorate program?

I realized it was not me at all. It was a sign of the times. I was the first generation after Brown vs. Board of Education where I had white teachers who did not have experience dealing with African-American children.

What do young children, especially young black children, typically get suspended and expelled for today?

What we’re seeing is young black boys are engaged in either the same behaviors or even lesser offenses than young white boys, but the implicit bias of teachers doesn’t allow them to see it. They’re saying they’re disruptive, defiant, too active. Even if you go through 12th grade those are the reasons.

In my research, we see teachers judge black children based on stereotypes. When you believe a stereotype you see what you expect. So, you have a cultural disconnect, implicit bias and teachers not knowing how to handle what they call challenging behaviors.

My favorite saying is “behavior is defined by the person most annoyed by it.” If you already have this unconscious bias that we all have, then that behavior from that child annoys you even more.

You once observed a kindergarten class where a black boy was singled out for misbehavior by a teacher. What happened?

She was trying to get the children to sit criss-cross applesauce and they’re not. And the little guy I’m observing…he runs over and sits criss-cross applesauce.

The little white boy sitting right next to the teacher pulls his shirt over his head. He’s flipping. He’s turning. My little guy has been sitting and trying to get (the teacher’s) attention forever and he’s not getting it, so he unfolds his legs and he sticks them out and she has to reach over (the white boy and a white girl) to tell him to put his legs back. And you wonder does she see the kids next to her? Does she see the little girl twirling? For every four times she corrects (the black student) she says maybe one thing to the other two.

Did you have a chance to show the teacher the video you took of that incident?

Neither she nor the principal would look at the video. It was heartbreaking. The mom (of the black student) ended up taking him out. She was being called three or four times a week to pick him up.

This 2011-12 data is from The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
This 2011-12 data is from The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Even though we’re seeing these amazing numbers of suspensions, what we’re not able to capture is what we call the “soft suspensions” — forcing them out; asking them to leave; saying, “This isn’t a good fit.”

What do you think caused the teacher you observed to focus so much on the black student’s behavior?

The biggest problem is the teacher didn’t know what to do. She had very little experience working with young children.

There are studies that talk about implicit bias and how it’s triggered most often with the automatic responses that are made under stress…So, she’s under stress. Here I am observing her room, (there are) 22 children who will not sit criss-cross applesauce and she tried to make them do it for 25 minutes. That’s where the implicit bias comes in: “Who are my troublemakers?”

What are the consequences for children who are suspended or expelled?

By the time they get to kindergarten and they’ve been kicked out of about two or three facilities, now they’re already disengaged from the learning process. And the greatest indicator of being suspended is having been suspended before.

Academic outcomes are definitely lowered. They’re disenfranchised even from other kids because now they’re labeled “bad.” So, not only are they in an “out” group because of race or gender, they’re in an “out” group because they’ve been identified as “bad.”

These kids have a lot of trouble…having positive relationships with teachers and with other children and sometimes at home.

How early do suspensions or expulsions start?

My research shows it starts about 17 months and usually it’s for biting or aggressive behaviors. Even that young there’s disproportionality. We’re seeing all the children are biting, but black boys are being suspended or kicked out.

How do you facilitate cultural competency in your classes at MSU Denver?

Ninety-five percent of my students are white women. Most of them, by self report, have had very little interaction with people of color. We take them on these field trips (to a black church, a Buddhist temple, Denver’s Five Points neighborhood etc.) where they are now engaging with people from backgrounds they’ve never had exposure to.

You once visited a family child care home run by a man who offered unusual opportunities for movement and physical activity. How did that shape your thoughts on the mostly female early childhood workforce?

I began to see how careful we are: “Don’t jump! Don’t run!” How much we stifle the natural activity of boys. I began to see that as women, we want boys to act like girls because then we can be in a lot more control.

You’ve said that everyone has implicit bias, including you.

As long as I’ve been doing this work, I’d say at least two or three times a week my biases pop up.

My classroom was observed when I was a young teacher and the observer said I was biased against little girls — one of the most devastating events of my career. She didn’t say, ‘You’re biased.’ She said, “Rosemarie, do you like little girls?’ And I said, ‘Of course I do, I love all my children.’ She goes, ‘Well, little girls tend to get in trouble a lot with you, more so than little boys.’

My daughter said this was my PTSD because … when I was in trouble (as a child), it was always the little girls who tattled on me, so I had this built-in bias.

How does public policy need to change on early childhood suspensions and expulsions?

I believe as long as we have suspension in our tool box, we’ll use it. You’ve heard the saying, “If the only thing you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” And we want to get rid of the hammer, but we can’t do that if teachers don’t have the support they need.

The last thing we want is for a child who’s perceived as a problem to be forced to stay in an environment where they’re not wanted, because then I would fear abuse, no matter how subtle that is.

So, I think the first thing we need to do is make sure teachers have the tools they need. They need training on implicit bias. They need professional development on how to handle some of these behaviors.

My contention is in order to reduce disproportionality we have to be aware of the biases, the culture and the expectations that we bring into every situation. And it’s just there for all of us, whether it’s the gender gap, the racial gap, class gap.

What is the next thing Colorado should do?

It’s two pronged: Create the policy that says if suspension is ever used it will be used as a last resort and it will be determined by a third party. And teachers get the supports they need.

The key is that we recognize that people are in this field because they truly want to make a positive difference and impact outcomes for children. No one is coming in saying I want to suspend little black kids or little brown kids. They are doing the best they can with what they have. I think that’s the first thing we need to recognize. But then say, “But here’s the data and we know why that’s happening.”

I think providers are afraid they’re going to be perceived as really bad people. We don’t want that. We know that there are tools out there that can help: Pyramid Model practices, early childhood mental health consultants and teacher prep programs. The Denver Preschool Program has a four-part training series on addressing disproportionality in discipline.

debating discipline

Threats, attacks and thrown chairs: DPS fields concerns about effort to reduce early childhood suspensions

PHOTO: John/Creative Commons

One 6-year-old Denver student told his pregnant teacher he was going to kick her to kill her unborn baby. A first-grader tried to stab her teacher in the eye with a sharpened pencil. Another young child threw a classmate against a brick wall and gave her a concussion.

Such jaw-dropping incidents — detailed in dozens of comments submitted to Denver Public Schools in recent months — illustrate the tightrope walk district officials face as they consider a policy change that would dramatically curb suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.

Advocates hail the proposal as a key step toward early childhood discipline reform and a way to combat the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on young boys of color. But many educators are wary — saying that the district already provides too little help in managing the most explosive young students and that the new policy will only exacerbate the problem.

The policy, scheduled for a school board vote Monday, would reserve suspensions of preschool through third-grade students for “only the most severe behaviors impacting staff or student safety” and they would be limited to one day. Expulsions would be allowed only if young students bring guns to school.

Debate about the district’s new policy comes as school districts nationwide grapple with efforts to reduce racial and gender disparities in early childhood discipline, and a few months after state legislation to reduce suspensions and expulsions in preschool through second grade died in a Senate committee.

At a Denver school board meeting last month, at least a dozen people spoke in favor of the district’s proposed changes, including two state representatives, as well as leaders from the Denver NAACP, the Urban League, Democrats for Education Reform, and the advocacy groups Padres & Jovenes Unidos and Advocacy Denver.

They argued that suspensions don’t work to change bad behavior, that they set children back academically and increase the risk of future suspensions.

But a number of educators — even those who support the move philosophically — are skeptical.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said she worries the proposal is an example of district officials adopting a stance that “looks wonderful but doesn’t put the appropriate supports in place.”

“I have some trepidation about DPS always wanting to be the first and a ground-breaker without thinking about how it affects the classroom,” she said.

In response to an open records request from Chalkbeat, DPS provided 66 comments — with names, school names and contact information redacted — received through a special email address for public feedback about the proposed policy.

Most respondents were district staff, a few were parents and one was a district official from Pittsburgh, which is considering a moratorium on suspensions for preschool to second grade students.

Only a handful of the 66 commenters favored the proposed policy change, which would take effect for the coming school year.

One parent wrote, “As a father of two current DPS Black male students, I am writing to support the proposed policy … The current practice/policy is out of sync with the mission of DPS.”

A school psychologist also wrote in support, saying, “In much the same way that we wouldn’t attempt to expel a student who lacked essential academic knowledge or skill, we should not attempt to expel young students who lack essential behavioral knowledge or skill.”

More often, educators expressed anger, frustration and disappointment over the proposal — painting a picture of teachers, students and sometimes whole schools at the mercy of a few violent young students.

One third grade teacher wrote, “Students have no fear of breaking rules. I have had students who attack others regularly, throw chairs at students’ heads, punch students and teachers in the face, choke others, stab at necks with fists full of pencils, curse violently, run out of the school, elaborate on their plans to harm others at the school or get them to commit suicide — and those are just my students.”

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief for student equity and opportunity, said the proposed changes are targeted at eliminating suspensions for children whose behavior is “in some ways more irritating than threatening.” Children who show extremely violent or aggressive behavior could still be suspended, he said.

In the 2015-16 school year, the district suspended about 500 kids in preschool through third grade. None were expelled.

A number of DPS staff members who provided written comments said current practices — including regular lessons on social and emotional skills and efforts to use restorative justice — don’t work in the most extreme cases.

A second grade teacher wrote, “These ‘restorative’ conversations lead absolutely no where and have close to zero effect as the same students are continuing to repeat these same behaviors and they become more extreme and regular.”

But district officials say a new infusion of cash approved by voters last November will provide extra help to educators — in the form of extra staff or other services devoted to students’ mental health and social and emotional needs

Greer said $11 million from the district’s mill levy will be divvied among schools based on enrollment, number of low-income students and other factors. Principals will be able to pay school social workers, counselors or psychologists to work additional days, partner with local mental health organizations or propose other ideas, he said.

Three-quarters of district schools would receive $30,000 or more from the $11 million pot.

Shamburg said on a per-school basis it’s not much money.

Greer said, “I think it is a good chunk of support when you think an average elementary school may be able to increase by one, two or three days of mental health coverage.”

Some commenters on the proposed policy urged the district to create new specialized programs for the most challenging children or find such slots outside the district. A couple commenters who previously worked in other districts voiced their surprise at the lack of social and emotional help available in their DPS schools.

A former Aurora teacher gave a plug for universal mental health screenings. Others urged smaller class sizes and more recess time.

Some commenters — including a school social worker and school psychologist — reported instances of school staff not reporting or misreporting discipline cases to make their schools’ rates look better, and expressed concern that the practice will persist under the new policy.

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell said of the assertions, “We’re not doubting that people are telling us their experiences when they give us comments.” 

Greer said the district holds monthly trainings to help administrators implement the district’s discipline policy and document discipline incidents. The district also works with Padres and Advocacy Denver to address parent concerns about inappropriate discipline reporting.

A district special education teacher wrote of mixed feelings about the proposed early childhood discipline policy: “I am happy that DPS is nationally recognized but I hope this recognition does not come at the expense of scared children, injured children and hopeless staff and personnel.”

The comments below are a selection of those submitted to the district.

The haves and have-nots

How generous private donations have created a tale of two pre-Ks in Detroit

PHOTO: LaWanda Marshall
Students in LaWanda Marshall's pre-K class at Detroit's Carver STEM Academy go on field trips to places like the Grand Prix Education Day at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

LaWanda Marshall and Candace Graham both teach pre-kindergarten at the Carver STEM Academy on Detroit’s west side.

Both have colorful, toy-filled classrooms, computers for students to use and assistant teachers to help guide their four- and five-year olds as they learn and explore.

But Marshall’s classroom has other things too — lots and lots of other things that regularly arrive like gifts from the pre-K gods.

“The office calls and says you have a package, and we’re like ‘Yay!’ and the kids get excited. It’s like Christmas,” said Marshall. Boxes filled with classroom supplies like musical instruments and science kits arrive every few weeks.

Marshall’s students — part of the Grow Up Great program funded by the PNC Foundation — go on regular field trips and get frequent visits from travelling instructors. The parents of her students get access to support programs like one that connects job seekers with employment opportunities. And Marshall receives special training in teaching arts and sciences that she credits with upping her game as an educator.

Graham and her students, meanwhile, hang back when the kids down the hall board the bus to go on field trips. Few packages or visitors arrive.

“We get left out a lot,” Graham said. “It’s unfortunate because I feel like all the kids should have the opportunities … They get more resources than we do. They have more materials in their classroom.”

The tale of two pre-Ks at the Carver STEM Academy is a problem well known in high-poverty school districts like Detroit that rely on the generosity of corporate and philanthropic donations to pick up where government resources leave off.

Districts are happy to accept gifts from private donors — baseball tickets or classroom supplies or money for school renovations. But inevitably, there’s not enough to go around. Schools then have to choose.

At Carver, all of the pre-K students are getting a quality education and a leg-up on school. But the children in Marshall’s classroom get to experience a program that shows how much more is possible when teachers have enough resources to fully involve parents, to engage community partners and to focus as much on science and art as they do on the ABCs.

The pre-K enrichment program is in 38 Detroit classrooms including 28 that receive PNC Grow Up Great funding and 10 that are supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Children in most of the city’s 177 pre-K classrooms don’t get to participate. That’s an inequity that Pamela Moore says she’d like to change.

Moore heads the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, which raises private funds for district schools. She’s trying to raise money to expand the program to all of the district’s preschools.

“We’ve got lots of partnerships so some kids get some things. Other kids get other things … but a lot of money is needed,” she said.

Moore is also looking for new ways to distribute private dollars so things like donated equipment or invitations to the Grand Prix are more coordinated — and less like a game show with prize-winning contestants.

“You’re the winner!” Moore said. “You and you and you. If we could coordinate that, maybe everyone could get a field trip or two and teachers could plan on it and count on it.”

 

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PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students in LaWanda Marshall’s pre-Kindergarten class at the Carver STEM Academy regularly receive boxes with new toys like these ramps and balls that teach physics concepts through PNC’s Grow Up Great program. “It’s like Christmas!” Marshall said.

The PNC Foundation launched Grow Up Great in 2004, investing $350 million in quality education for young children across the nation. The bank’s effort was part of a national push from philanthropists, advocates and governments to help children become better prepared for school.

“For every dollar spent on high quality early education, the society gains as much as $13 in long-term savings,” said Gina Coleman, a PNC vice president and community relations director.

PNC approached the Detroit school district about participating in 2009, said Wilma Taylor-Costen who at the time was an assistant superintendent in charge of district early childhood programs.

District officials worked with PNC to design a program that would expose kids to the arts and sciences through extra classroom resources and partnerships with museums and arts organizations, Taylor-Costen said. The idea was to connect families with those groups through field trips and classroom visits, and to train teachers so the benefits would continue even if the money dried up.

“It has been an awesome opportunity for exposure of not just our children but their families,” Taylor-Costen said.

When kids in the program go on field trips, their parents come along. This year that included trips to the North American International Auto Show, the Grand Prix education day at the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Cranbrook Science Center and a Music Hall puppet production of Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Parents also benefit from classes and programs that help them support student learning at home.

And Marshall credits the program with expanding her approach to teaching preschool after 22 years in the classroom.

“The professional development has been key, very valuable,” Marshall said. “Before, I focused on the reading and the math and making sure they could write their name. Now I know that by incorporating arts and sciences … I’m adding that missing element.”

Tayor-Costen said she couldn’t recall how classrooms were selected for the program but said district officials made sure to include schools in different city neighborhoods.

 

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PHOTO: Courtesy of LaWanda Marshall
Detroit Pre-K teacher LaWanda Marshall poses with her students at the Carver STEM Academy before a bell choir performance that was made possible by the PNC Grow Up Great program. She learned to play bells when the Music Hall brought the instruments to her classroom.

 

Principal Sabrina Evans first brought the PNC program to Carver when she came to the school in 2012. She had seen the program at her prior school, the Beard Early Learning Neighborhood Center, and wanted it for Carver’s pre-Ks, she said.

“For them to have the first time going to school with all these things at their disposal, it’s like ‘Wow! I like school!’ Not only the kids, but the parents. I see more parents coming to the field trips and then I see them coming to school to participate.”

Evans was able to put both of Carver’s two pre-K classrooms into the Grow Up Great program in 2012 but when the school added a third pre-K in 2016, there wasn’t room for a third Carver classroom in the coveted program.

That’s why Graham’s students can’t participate.

“It’s lonely,” Graham said. “A lot of times we don’t even know when they have somebody coming to their classroom because it’s almost like a secret society.”

On a recent morning, when Graham’s class came out to play on the playground, her students ran past students in the school’s two PNC classrooms. The PNC kids were launching bottle rockets they had learned to make when visitors from the Charles H. Wright Museum, a new partner, brought bottles, baking soda and vinegar to the school.

Evans said she tries to support Graham’s classroom with other resources. She sets aside $20,000 from her budget every year to pay for school-wide field trips (Marshall’s students go on those field trips, too). And Marshall says she shares as many classroom resources with Graham as she can. She also passes along ideas and tools she develops through the supplemental teacher trainings.

But Evans regrets that some of her classrooms get benefits that others do not.

“I’m blessed to have two [PNC classrooms] because some schools don’t have any,” she said “But  … If they’re going to offer it, it should go to every pre-K class in the district.”

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit Pre-K teacher Candace Graham talks to a student on the playground at the Carver STEM Academy. She says her students get “left out a lot” because the school’s two other preschool classrooms are in the PNC Grow Up Great program.

Moore has been trying to raise money to expand the program — and continue it in case the current funding dries up.

Last year, Moore put together a proposal to share with potential funders that put the cost of the program at $882 per child per year.

“PNC was the one that stepped up and said they were going to write a check and … we were so excited about that investment, we just said ‘woo hoo!’ and took it,” Moore said. “But now it’s time, if we all agree that it’s valuable … to go and find the resources.”

Moore is encouraged by the Hope Starts Here initiative, led by the Kellogg and Kresge Foundations, which has brought parents, experts, community organizations and political leaders together over the past year to develop a city-wide strategy to improve the lives of young children in Detroit.

“Hope Starts Here is an excellent example of bringing everybody into the room, figuring out where the gaps are and coming up with a plan we all agree with,” Moore said. “Then we’ll have a road map.”

Kellogg has been funding programs in the Detroit Public Schools for years but has recently ramped up its focus on early childhood education, said Khalilah Burt Gaston, a Detroit-based program officer with the Battle Creek-based foundation.

The foundation has worked closely with district leaders, she said, but the string of state-appointed emergency managers in recent years has made city-wide collaboration with the district challenging. “I think it would be fair to say that it’s been difficult during transitioning leadership to articulate a clear vision and strategy,” Gaston said.

That could change now that the district has a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, who has said he plans to stay for at least five years. Gaston said Hope Starts Here hopes to work with the district as it looks for new ways to expand high-quality early childhood programs.

Grow Up Great offers one model that the planners are looking to, she said. “It’s wonderful but it’s only serving a small number of children so what are the strategies needed to scale that? Replicate it across the entire district?”

Coleman said PNC knew that limited resources would prevent the bank from providing the program to all of the district’s preschoolers. The goal, she said, was to show what can be accomplished with extra funds.

“Obviously you can’t help every classroom,” she said. “But we have helped set the bar in how it can look.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of LaWanda Marshall
Students in LaWanda Marshall’s Detroit pre-Kindergarten class attend the North American International Auto Show through PNC’S Grow Up Great program