Skip to content

Preschoolers are being suspended and expelled, and NC activists say racial inequity is the root problem

Emily Jackson, a program director at the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), said that when she started talking about preschoolers being suspended or expelled, the response often depended on the race of the listener.

White people’s jaws dropped.

“Black people knew that this has been happening for a long time,” Jackson said.

A 2014 national report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that Black preschoolers were three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white classmates. Data from North Carolina public preschool programs showed that 47% of children suspended once and 73% of children suspended more than once were Black in 2015-16.

In 2017, the Center for American Progress analyzed the first nationally representative survey on preschool discipline that included public and private settings, and it estimated that 250 preschoolers are suspended or expelled each day, with Black children about two times more likely to be suspended or expelled than other children.

“Early childhood serves as a protective factor, and so we are ushering the young kids out of the very environments that are supposed to support them” when they are suspended or expelled, said Ebonyse Mead, president of the Educational Equity Institute and instructor at Georgia Southern University. “As an early childhood professional, however you touch children … you can’t ignore the data.”

North Carolina activists and researchers such as Mead and Jackson gathered virtually this week to draw attention to these and other racial inequities in early care and education systems. The conference was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and organized by ASAP, the Educational Equity Institute, the National Black Child Development Institute, and the Jordan Institute for Families at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work.

“We know that when we push these bodies out of the classroom, when we’re not being intentional about providing high-quality child care to all of our children, particularly our Black and our brown babies, that we have the potential to destroy academic careers before they even begin,” said Devonya Govan-Hunt, president of the Charlotte affiliate of the Black Child Development Institute. “That’s what’s happening in this space.”

A 2016 study from the Yale Child Study Center pointed to teachers' implicit bias as a possible explanation for the racial disparities in preschool discipline. Using eye-tracking technology, the researchers found that pre-K teachers spent more time looking at Black children, particularly Black boys, than white children when watching videos in which they were told to press a key "every time you see a behavior that could become a potential challenge." The children in the videos were participating in normal classroom activities.

A new federal requirement under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that local districts collect and report discipline data for children ages 3-5 "when determining disproportionality in placement and disciplinary action by race." A 2018 report from the state's Office of Early Learning (OEL) details the racial disparities in preschool discipline and outlines a behavior management strategy called Pyramid Preschool Model, which at the time was being rolled out in 39 districts. An OEL presentation to the State Board of Education in June 2020 said the state will begin collecting this information this school year.

According to the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, both NC Pre-K and Head Start have either prohibited or strongly discouraged suspension and expulsion. The state Division of Child Development and Early Education released a statement in 2017, saying the division's intent is "to prevent, severely limit, and work toward eventually eliminating the expulsion and suspension – and ensure the safety and well-being – of young children in early learning settings."

What can be done?

Potential solutions were discussed over the course of the two days of the conference: strengthening early educator preparation and raising compensation, improving data collection in North Carolina's early learning systems, and restructuring the state's star rating system for licensed child care facilities.

Jennifer Neitzel, Educational Equity Institute's executive director, said workforce issues around minimal education standards, low compensation, and stressful working conditions often leave early educators without the resources to address children's behaviors.

North Carolina child care workers made a median hourly wage of $10.35 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state's minimum education standard to be a lead early childhood teacher is one community college course.

"We're not adequately preparing our workforce to keep children, and so because a lot of teachers don't know what to do with behaviors, it's just easier to kick them out," Neitzel said.

When it comes to understanding where in the state suspensions and expulsions are happening and to what extent, the disjointed nature of the system is no help, said Paul Lanier, associate director of the Family and Child Well-Being Partnership at the Jordan Institute for Families. Most available data is collected through public preschool programs. Yet private child care facilities have no reporting requirements.

"There is a major data issue here that is stopping us from making any real change or understanding this problem," Lanier said. "Maybe it's not intentional, but there's this kind of ... systemic racism where no one person is making a decision but the system is failing because of our ability to collect data, essentially."

Lanier led a study last year of early childhood data user needs funded by the Preschool Development Grant through the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as data roundtables around specific issues including reducing early childhood suspensions and expulsions. A February report on topics raised during roundtables across the state asks, "How can early childhood data systems be used to perpetuate or remedy existing disparities?"

Lanier said policymakers want to know where children are as they start a particularly complicated school year, which could be an opportunity for discipline data collection.

No Band-Aid fixes

Though the conference raised strategies to reduce these disparities, organizers encouraged long-term structural change.

The National Black Child Development Institute's 2018 report, "Delivering on the Promise of Effective Early Childhood Education," outlines a vision for "systems-level change." Its introduction reads: "Disproportionate suspensions and expulsions for Black children in early childhood education underscore widespread injustice and racial inequality in our early childhood education system."

From licensing standards and professional development reforms to wraparound mental health services for children and families, the report aims for early learning environments that are "inclusive and affirming" of Black children.

Digging deeper than programmatic fixes or single-issue focuses is necessary, Mead said.

"Implicit bias, preschool suspension and expulsions, the idea of color-blindness, all of that is just a symptom of whiteness in our society," Mead said. "We have questions that we have to unpack, and that larger question is: How do we reimagine a system that is inclusive for everybody?"

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.