The School-to-Prison Pipeline Starts in Preschool

A recent report from the Department of Justice reveals the racial disparities in school disciplinary policies that result in young black children falling into the pipeline earlier.

Who knew that the school to prison pipeline started at pre-school?

That is the overarching message that some have taken away from a recent Department of Justice report indicating that even though black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment 42% of them have been suspended once, and 48% suspended more than once. It was also discovered that black and Hispanic schoolchildren are more quickly referred to law enforcement.

The report from the Civil Right Division’s Educational Opportunities Section analyzing its 2011 to 2012 Civil Rights Data Collection database discovered that even though African-American students made up just under one in five preschoolers enrolled during the 2011-2012 school year, they accounted for nearly half of all preschool students who faced more than one out-of-school suspension. And for many the punishment is dished out beyond the principal’s office.

“This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at an event presenting the findings at J.O.  Wilson Elementary School in Washington, DC. “Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed.  This Administration is moving aggressively to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in order to ensure that all of our young people have equal educational opportunities.”

The findings came from analysis of a comprehensive collection of data from 97,000 of the nation’s public schools in 16,500 school districts and representing 49 million students that the Justice Department recently started assessing and extracting data from to determine trends.

A press release about the data linked it to the prison pipeline, noting that the “data  reveals particular concern around discipline for our nation’s young men and boys of color, who are disproportionately affected by suspensions and zero-tolerance policies in schools,” also noting that “suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again. They are also more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.”

The pre-school research shows that clearly there is less patience for excited outbursts, a child speaking out of turn or rattling off endlessly to make a point. Black children are punished, put out the class and reprimanded for conduct that may be a natural and incidental to exploratory play and expression. When warnings, parent-teacher meetings, taking away recess and other benefits are options, kicking a child out of enrichment opportunities can be a dangerous thing.

This report came a couple months after another analysis found that participants advanced the age of a child they were told committed a felony, even police.  A Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study, released on February 24th found  “when asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too,” a piece in The Wire summarized.

So something about black children cause people to see them as older than they are and by default expect a different set of actions and reactions from them.  We saw this in the Michael Dunn murder trial for the murder of teen Jordan Davis. Dunn said he thought the SUV full of black teens he said was threatening him were older adult men. He shot at them anticipating that they were capable of a lot worse than just usual teen trash talking.

Clearly, these studies reveal a deeper level of pathology assigned to black children that can have wide-ranging impact on them to the point they’d lose out on enrichment activities, become stigmatized and face harsh consequences.

Although some try to isolate the challenges in urban communities to those within them solely, the findings from these analyses reveal that there are institutional and societal influences and factors that add a layer to the uphill battle of surviving a life with less resources, support and opportunities.

Hopefully the information will be used to implement real, measurable change.

About the author, Jeneba Ghatt

Jeneba Ghatt is an attorney, columnist, speaker, blogger and political analyst. She owns a DC-area boutique tech and communications law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, where she has represented clients before the US Supreme Court, federal courts, the FCC, and the FTC. She has served as political analyst, columnist and Washington correspondent for various publications, including Politic365.com and the Washington Times Communities. Her work has appeared syndicated on The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Root and other sites. Visit her website, Jeneba Speaks and follow her on Twitter @jenebaspeaks.
  1. I suspect that this report is nothing more than racist propaganda. It seems to have been presented in a style typical of a Lawyer or a politician. When reading, it is important to take other things into consideration. Take the family life of the children in question. take the fact that the study is clearly just focused on a particular group, without mention of other children who suffer the same or worse, but don’t qualify for this study, even though the numbers may be greater. It is a dangerous game we play, when we try to use children to push an agenda.

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