Holder, Duncan stunned by discipline figures

Susan Ferriss

Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed shock at data released Thursday showing that thousands of preschool kids were suspended nationwide during the 2011-2012 school year. The suspensions fell heavily on black children, who represented 18 percent of preschool enrollment yet 48 percent of all suspensions.

“I was stunned — I was stunned — that we were suspending and expelling four-year-olds,” Duncan said at a Washington D.C. elementary school, where he and Holder discussed findings of the latest Civil Rights Data Collection by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The survey showed that nearly 5,000 preschool students were suspended in the 2011-12 academic year.

“This preschool suspension issue is mind-boggling,” Duncan said. “And we need to as a nation find a way to remedy that tomorrow.”

Duncan said training is needed at schools that suspend large numbers of kids at all grade levels to demonstrate a “better way” of handling problem behavior. “We know there is a correlation between out-of-school suspensions and ultimately locking people up,” Duncan said. “And folks don’t like it when we talk about it. But for far too many children and communities the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ is real.”

Holder said the findings of the data collection are “unacceptable. And it’s important to bear in mind … that these are not abstract statistics,” but rather hard data collected from schools.  

The racial disparities in preschool suspensions, Holder added, “reflect where we are as a society.”

“There are certain preconceptions that people have about kids of color,” he said. Kids can engage in “the kinds of things that kids normally do,” he said, and behavior can sometimes be “misconstrued if you deal with a child with a preconceived notion about that child.”

“We have to break through that. It means we have to train our teachers in ways that are sensitive to cultural differences,” Holder said. “There are a whole variety of ways (to respond to children) that we have so we don’t misunderstand behaviors.”

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.