OPINION – According to the most recent data from the state of California, the statewide suspension rate of young children in kindergarten through third grade is less than one percent (at 0.9%). However, data from Sacramento County show egregiously high suspension rates for Black children. For instance, 15.9% of Black boys enrolled in schools within the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) were suspended. This rate is 17.7 times higher than the statewide average and should be investigated. However, the SCOE is not alone; noticeably high suspension rates for Black boys in kindergarten through third grade are also taking place in Twin Rivers Unified (at 12.3%), Center Joint Unified (at 11.5%), Natomas Unified (at 11.3%), and Sacramento City Unified (at 9.4%). These are rates that one might expect to see in the deep south in the 1970’s, not from one of America’s most progressive cities. Undoubtedly, these rates should serve as a clarion call to parents, educators, and community members alike.
You might ask yourself, how does something like this happen? Well, here is an illustrative example. Jamal is in kindergarten and is with a group of boys who are throwing rocks against the fence. Concerned about safety, their teacher says: “Jamal, stop throwing rocks, you are going to hurt somebody. I’m putting you in time-out during recess today and tomorrow.” She then looks at the other boys and says, “be careful you don’t become troublemakers too” – an apparent reference to Jamal. Over the years, researchers have found scenarios like this to be commonplace. They demonstrate the tendency of educators to: assume that Black children are troublemakers, label them as being “bad,” “defiant,” and “aggressive,” more closely watch them for wrongdoing, single them out for discipline — even when other children are engaged in the same behavior. It is this tendency, that teaches Black children early on in their education to see schools as unwelcoming, dismissive, and even — hostile. The suspension rates in Sacramento County may suggest the latter.
One of the unfortunate insights we have learned from our prior research, is that Black children are often disciplined by educators for actions that are age appropriate. For example, it is age appropriate for a kid in kindergarten to fidget in their chair, tap their pencil, and make distracting noises from time to time. Those are the types of things that normal five-year olds do. Most people would understand that these are behaviors of kids who are just learning how to be students. Just a kid being a kid. However, these behaviors are viewed differently by educators based on the race and gender of the child. Black children are assumed to have bad intentions, and therefore, when they engage in actions that are in need of correction the response from educators is categorically different. One child is reminded to pay attention; a Black child is put-down publicly. One child who makes a mistake is given a warning; a Black child is given a suspension. One child is reprimanded yet begins the next day with a clean slate, a Black child receives on-going reprimands and has a mistake held over their head for several days. And so on.
The time for action is now. There must be a statewide effort to eliminate the suspensions of children in early childhood education, at the very least in kindergarten. There are only incredibly rare scenarios that would warrant the suspension of a five-year old. This is critical to ensure that students’ early experiences in school, which serve as the foundation for the rest of their academic careers, will be healthy and productive. At the local level, there must be mandatory countywide investigations into districts and schools that suspend 10% or more of their young Black boys and/or girls. If a school suspends young children at this high of a rate, this is emblematic of school failure, not a function of the students, their families, or their communities. In addition, there must be screening for incoming teachers to determine their efficacy to teach children from diverse backgrounds. Most teachers do not come from the communities they teach in and are not reflective of the diversity of students that they teach. Given this, there must also be mandatory training for teachers on issues on explicit and implicit bias, racial microaggressions, and the prevalence of anti-Blackness in education.
There is much that can be done, if there is the will to be better. The question for Sacramento is this: Are Black children worth it?
By J. Luke Wood
Dr. J. Luke Wood is the Vice President for Student Affairs and Campus Diversity at San Diego State University and the author of several books addressing Black student achievement.