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When people hear that schools in DC and elsewhere are suspending preschoolers, they can’t fathom why these suspensions occur.  Some policy-makers grab at quick fixes like banning the practice.  But one underlying cause of preschool suspension is the slow process for identifying and addressing the needs of children with disabilities.

My experience teaching in a public preschool tells me we can achieve a more meaningful reduction in suspensions by addressing the root causes of the problem rather than simply banning suspension outright.

Preschool suspension has been a hot issue since March, when the federal government released stark findings. A study found that preschoolers not only get suspended, but African-American preschoolers get suspended at disproportionate rates.

Preschoolers with disabilities aren’t disproportionately suspended, according to the study, but that may be because many haven’t been officially classified as disabled yet. Looking at all grade levels, the study found that students with disabilities are twice as likely to receive one or more suspensions.

In July, DC’s own data came out in a report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). The DC data conformed to national trends, and OSSE recommended banning preschool suspensions.

That recommendation prompted Councilmember David Grosso to introduce a bill, now pending before the DC Council, that would ban suspensions in DC preschools except in the most extreme circumstances.

Arne Duncan found the national data on preschool suspensions “mind-boggling.” Grosso, for his part, found the local data “ridiculous,” saying he couldn’t fathom why a school would need to suspend such young children.

The assumption seems to be that teachers who suspend young children lack common sense. Feeling distrust, teachers may be reluctant to share what they know. Kojo Nnamdi did a segment on preschool suspension on his WAMU radio show this summer in which he begged teachers to weigh in. He was met with radio silence.

Why some preschoolers get suspended

I participated in the suspension of preschoolers when I taught in another city. That experience was one of the reasons I chose to teach in a private school rather than entangle myself in the heartbreak of public school teaching when I moved to DC.

I taught in a highly regarded, socioeconomically diverse public preschool program that would make for an extreme reality show: 20 three- and four-year olds. One teacher, two part-time assistants. One classroom. No windows.

Two of my students, Will and Maya, clearly had profound special needs, which were undiagnosed when the children started school. (I have changed their names.) Both were low-income children of color. Their behavior made it hard, and sometimes impossible, to keep them and their peers safe.

Will liked things his way.  Sometimes, if his preferred rest toy was not in his bag, Will would throw himself to the floor and bang his head against the linoleum tile. Hard. He hit it again, harder, then again. He would not stop.

Maya avoided eye contact, and her diet consisted only of Ensure. Her clothing often bothered her, and sometimes something like an itchy sock would send her into a tailspin.

She would take off the sock, throw it, and then begin shedding every other item of her clothing. Stumbling around the room in a tearful daze, she would scratch herself until she bled.  She was inconsolable, and one day left sleeping in her mothers’ arms. That was a suspension.

I and other school staff spent several months struggling to teach Will and Maya while maintaining a supportive educational environment for 18 other children, many of whom had developmental challenges themselves.

Then, once Will and Maya’s parents consented to have them evaluated for services, we began the waiting game, during which we continued to struggle. Eventually we found more therapeutic settings for them for kindergarten, but only after a difficult year that included a suspension for each.

Shortening DC’s evaluation time

One reason early childhood education is vital is that it allows schools to identify children with special needs early and get them the services they need. But, as my experience with Will and Maya shows, that does not happen neatly or overnight.  In the meantime, a child may be sent home early—in other words, suspended.

In Connecticut, where I taught Will and Maya, government agencies have 60 days to evaluate a child for special services after parents give their consent. Even that seemed like a long time. But in the District, government agencies currently have 120 days—two-thirds of a school year.

Councilmember David Catania has introduced a bill that would cut that time to 60 days, the national standard. The bill, which comes up for a vote by the full Council tomorrow, is part of the controversial special education overhaul Catania introduced in March.

The bill also would also change the requirement that children have to show a 50% delay in a developmental area to qualify for services before age three, allowing them to qualify if they have only a 25% delay.

These changes would greatly expand access to special education services, and they could cut down on the number of situations where preschool teachers feel they have no alternative but to suspend students. But one question is whether DC’s education agencies will have enough resources to implement them.

Catania’s chief of staff, Brendan Williams-Kief, conceded that “some additional hires might be necessary”  to carry out the mandates of the legislation. But he argued that OSSE already has ample special education staff, pointing out that the agency has a higher ratio of staff to students served than neighboring states like Maryland.

The District’s chief financial officer has also predicted there would be “no cost” to implementing the bills over the next few years. In part, that’s because other provisions of the special education package aim to reduce expensive private school placements for students with disabilities.  The money saved would go into a “Special Education Enhancement Fund.”

While a ban on preschool suspensions in DC would certainly reduce out-of-school discipline for three- and four-year-olds, it’s a blunt instrument that would only go so far.  To address the root causes of some of those suspensions, we have to ensure that young children who need special education services are able to get them, and get them as quickly as possible.