Early in the week when their biracial 3 1/2-year-old son “Scott” and his little black playmate mooned the other children in their preschool class, that was the last straw.
The school quickly called both sets of parents, telling them to pick up their sons immediately and keep them home—their sons’ little brown bottoms had scared the other children.
By Friday, at least for “Scott,” it was all over. The preschool had expelled him.
New Law in Illinois
If the legislation that Gov. Bruce Rauner recently signed into law had been in effect last year, little “Scott” might still be at the private suburban preschool his parents had carefully researched before enrolling him.
Nationwide, black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to be suspended as white preschool children. Although they make up only 18% of youngsters in preschool, they comprise 48% of those receiving an out-of-school suspension.
According to the Ounce of Prevention Fund, the new law prohibits the expulsion of students from preschools or other early childhood programs funded by the Illinois State Board of Education or licensed by the Department of Children and Family Services.
“Right now, children in preschool are expelled at a rate three times that of their peers in K-12. We believe that the new law is an important first step to remedy this problem and give every child the strongest possible start,” says Elliot Regenstein, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, in a statement. “By setting more consistent standards for expulsion and providing educators and children with the resources they need to understand implicit bias and manage challenging behaviors, this law will have a major, positive impact on our schools and our society.”
The law provides new protections for children against preventable expulsion. The Ounce explains in a statement: “Schools and child care programs will now be required to document the alternative steps taken to deal with persistent and challenging behaviors, as well as address implicit bias…. The law also identifies the trainings and topics needed to address these problems and asks state agencies to make this information available to programs. Finally, the law allows for better tracking of expulsions to expand understanding of how often and where pre-K expulsions are occurring.”
Expulsion as an Overreaction?
After speaking with “Scott’s” parents, it was hard for me to see why he was expelled. His previous care giver, a day care provider, allowed that “Scott” could be very stubborn, but there had never been any problem with aggression, hitting, or throwing things.
Yet, this was the behavior the preschool teachers said they saw. The parents took the school’s concerns seriously and had their son evaluated twice and also began child therapy for him. None of these professionals concluded that his behavior or development was such that he needed to be kept away from other children.
“Scott” was in a class that was 97% white and had two white teachers; most of the teachers and administrators at the preschool were white. Was race an issue?
It might have been. I’ve previously written that, regrettably, studies from Yale show that racism reaches down to preschoolers.
“Scott’s” parents are now enrolling him in a local public school where there are black teachers and administrators.
“We can’t be confident that [race] didn’t play a role in the way his behavior was interpreted,” says his mother.
Although, unfortunately, the new Illinois law covers only expulsion and not suspension, studies show that the training the new law requires can make a huge difference. Organizations like Head Start and the Ounce provide such training.
As a therapist from New York-based Ramapo for Children is quoted as saying in another post on the preschool-to-prison pipeline, “Saying ‘this kid doesn’t know how to behave’ isn’t helpful. As the adult, it is my job to understand what this child needs. An attuned relationship meets the child where the child is.”