Virginia suspends preschoolers at a high rate. What is the state doing about it?

Jonathon Gruenke/Daily Press

In kindergarten, Alexander Campbell was sent to the office or suspended 35 days of the school year. In first grade, this continued — he was removed from the classroom 27 days.

“It felt like the school was trying to get rid of me,” said Alex, who was a student at Flat Rock Elementary School in Powhatan, a town west of Richmond, at the time. He’s 16 now, and an advocate against the use of seclusion and restraint to discipline students.

At 3, Alex was diagnosed with autism. Some of his suspensions were for behaviors ordinary for autistic students, such as clapping his hands when a teacher asked him not to.

Alex’s experience is not uncommon among young students with disabilities. Advocates call punitive practices such as suspension and expulsion that remove a student from the learning environment “exclusionary discipline.”


In Virginia, there’s evidence of this trend at an even younger age, according to a 2020 study from Arizona State University. Based on data collected by the Civil Rights Data Collection from 2017-18, Virginia ranked sixth in the country for the rate of suspensions and expulsions among pre-K students in public programs. The rates were even higher for pre-K students with disabilities and Black students.

State and federal administrations have tried to curb these recent trends with policy. Dr. Evandra Catherine, one of the researchers behind the ASU study, pointed to Obama-era guidelines discouraging the use of suspension and expulsion as a likely explanation for a drop in the number of suspensions and expulsions between 2015-20 and 2017-18.

“Policy works to reduce the rates,” Catherine said. “But what policy has not done was reduce the disparities.”

Virginia is working on its own policy in response to its high rate of suspensions and expulsions among pre-K students. This fall, the state is gearing up to test a new program called early childhood mental health consultation, after a bill introduced in 2020 by Del. Mark Sickles initiated a feasibility study. Sickles represents the 43rd District, which includes parts of Fairfax County.

The model approaches behavioral challenges in pre-K classrooms from a mental health standpoint. Specifically, it brings mental health professionals into early care and education to help educators understand and address difficult behaviors in their students without turning to exclusionary discipline. A pilot version of the program is underway in the Henrico and Chesterfield school divisions.

This proposed solution from the state comes at a time when young students are facing more challenges than ever. For some, it’s their first time back in classrooms since the pandemic disrupted in-person learning. Tamilah Richardson, director of early childhood learning with the Virginia Department of Education, said the program couldn’t have come to Virginia classrooms at a better time.


Missed opportunities

When Alex was spending hours or days at a time outside the classroom, he wasn’t learning.

Sean Campbell, Alex’s father and a career educator in Virginia, said his son feels the effects of those gaps in his education to this day. But it has also had subtler effects, such as affecting Alex’s ability to work with fellow students.

It’s not just learning the alphabet and lessons in subtraction that pre-K students miss when they’re removed from classrooms. It’s also social-emotional learning, which some advocates say is the even greater setback.

Social emotional learning includes soft skills such as managing emotions, empathizing with others and working toward shared goals, according to the VDOE.

These are key developments kindergarten teachers look for in students coming out of preschool, said Jenna Conway, chief school readiness officer with VDOE. Suspensions limit young students’ opportunities to develop those important interpersonal skills.

By sending kids away instead of working with them, opportunities for early intervention also become limited, Catherine said. That includes referrals to services like speech and occupational therapy and diagnosing children on the autism spectrum.

Some early childhood education advocates also say that suspensions and expulsions can feed into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Researchers have explored the long-term negative effects suspensions can have on a students’ education, such as reducing students’ engagement and leading to higher dropout rates. Some say pushing students out of the classroom increases interactions with law enforcement, steering them toward the criminal justice system.

The Center for American Progress reported in 2015 that this trend is increasingly being associated with early childhood suspensions and expulsions, especially in the 3 to 5 age range.

“Not only are (suspensions and expulsions) ineffective, they’re actually harmful,” said Rachael Deane, legal director of the Youth Justice Program with the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Deane and her organization successfully pushed for a state law limiting the use of suspension and expulsion among students in pre-K through the third grade, which took effect in 2018. The law stipulates that suspension and expulsion should not be used unless the offense “involves physical hard or credible threat of physical harm to others.”

Limited data exists on why pre-K students actually are getting suspended and expelled. Catherine and her team say these are likely “subjective offenses,” however, such as the “three D’s” — disrespect, defiance and disruption. Advocates say exclusionary discipline fails to get at the root causes of these behavioral and developmental issues.


Implicit bias

Why are pre-K educators turning to suspension and expulsion in the first place?

Experts say much of it comes down to implicit bias. In the classroom, that can involve teachers viewing some of their students as more difficult based on stereotypes.

The problem isn’t only explained by individual teachers’ biases, however.

“Our early childhood workforce particularly is underpaid and overworked,” Catherine said. Burnout and other strains on educators’ mental health have been found to correlate with the use of harsher discipline.

Some teachers also lack sufficient resources at their respective pre-K programs. Federally funded programs such as Head Start are required to equip classrooms with early childhood mental health consultation.

But for other programs without support from the federal government, exclusionary discipline may be all the teachers have ever known. So that’s all their students ever know, too.

This is why more than just a ban of seclusion and expulsion is needed, according to Amanda Williford, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.

“Soft” suspensions refer to uses of exclusionary discipline may not count as suspensions or expulsions in name, but have the same end result of removing students from the classroom. Some of Alex’s suspensions fell under this category, according to his father, such as days when the school would ask Alex’s parents to pick him up early.

Williford worries if educators aren’t provided resources and new training, they may resort to subtler forms of exclusionary discipline.


New paths forward

A statewide early childhood mental-health consultation program would bring mental health professionals into pre-K educators’ classrooms across Virginia.

That may bring to mind images of 3-year-olds on a Freudian couch, Conway said, but it’s not that at all. Instead, it’s about teaming mental health professionals with educators to deepen those educators’ understandings of why young children act out. The consultants are there to help teachers nurture social emotional skills to resolve the issues instead of pushing children out.

“A kid is not sick or ill because he gets frustrated, or angry or excited,” Conway said. More and more, educators are understanding emotional management as a teachable skill. Programs such as early childhood mental health consultation try to put that theory into practice.

The program helps educators carry out focused interventions with individual students. But it also tries to expand educators’ toolkits so they can provide more universal support to their students and stop problems in their tracks, Richardson added.

The early childhood mental health consultation program also stresses cultural sensitivity among the qualifications for mental health consultants, as well as for pre-K educators themselves. These aspects help tackle disparities along the lines of race and ability, according to Catherine.

For now, the pilot program this fall is funded by federal relief dollars. VDOE is hopeful the pilot program is the first step toward a statewide program and identifying sustainable funding streams for the future.

Sean Campbell said his son could’ve benefited from better trained and more understanding teachers in his early education. Instead, he and his wife took matters into their own hands, even filing a formal complaint with VDOE and doing advocacy work of their own. But Campbell remains skeptical about this program’s implementation, as he thinks it comes down to local school systems being incentivized to make use of the program.

“OK, you’ve got this wonderful program,” Campbell said. “But are (the schools) going to really access it like they should?”

Julianna Morano, 323-553-2644,