Nation of Preschool Troublemakers

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Texas is fighting a war on multiple fronts: The war against women, the war against minorities, the war against the middle class. Who could have imagined our educational system would wage a war against preschoolers? If we trust in the latest data from U.S. Department of Education, it appears that 4-year-olds are education's newest enemy.

Each year the U.S. Department of Education collects key educational data on all 97,000 of our nation's public schools to be disaggregated into a database called the Civil Rights Data Collection. Since 2000, the information published on the CRDC is available for policymakers, researchers, journalists, and interested citizens.

It's very hard to fathom how the behavior of a child between the ages of 2 and 5 could merit suspension, expulsion or arrest, but it happened almost 5,000 times during the 2011-2012 school year. That same data suggests that Texas accounts for roughly 30 percent of those expelled preschool students.

The 2011-2012 school year data was the first time that preschool information was included. The CRDC data data showed that the suspensions fell heavily on black children, who represented 18 percent of preschool enrollment, yet comprised 48 percent of all suspensions.

Texas Appleseed, an Austin legal rights group, mirrors the CRDC's findings. In their report, Texas' School-to-Prison Pipeline, Texas isn't faring so well in comparison with other states. Pre-K students in Texas programs are expelled at twice the rate of older students and those expulsions are disproportionately special education students and minorities. In 2010, police in Texas gave close to 300,000 Class C misdemeanor tickets to children as young as 6.

Although Houston ISD had the highest number of expulsions in the state, with Dallas ISD placing second. To find out how your child's school performed, conduct your own search here: http://ocrdata.ed.gov/DistrictSchoolSearch

To change the problem, we must first ask the question: How did public schools get to this awful place?

The "tough on crime" movement, invented by Republican political grandstanding in the 1960's, reached a crescendo in the late 80s and 90s, resulting in harsh punitive policies such as mandatory sentencing, zero tolerance, three strikes, and truth-in-sentencing. With less emphasis on rehabilitation, the United States eventually earned the dubious honor of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The epidemic of inner city blight and gang violence led to "learning facilitators" in the public schools and evolved into the permanent presence of law enforcement in school hallways and classrooms. Many districts even created their own police force and it appears that ticketing and expulsions increased with Texas ISD's entry into the law enforcement sector.

The law of the instrument might apply here; a boy with a hammer sees everything as needing a good pounding.

Zero tolerance policies absolved principals and teachers of the responsibility of being the bad guy, but it also resulted in bad publicity for education. A wave of almost-comical stories hit the Internet; stories of placing a 5-year-old in handcuffs for the plastic butter knife in his lunchbox to a game of playground tag that resulted in sexual harassment charges for a 4-year-old.

Perhaps there are a few instances where the punishment fits the crime, but most reports suggest that schools are criminalizing normal childhood behavior out of professional frustration.

According to a recent Yale medical study, in collaboration with the Foundation for Child Development, the expulsion of preschoolers does little to prevent future behavior problems. Their findings showed private preschools had an even higher rate of expulsions for preschoolers than public schools. Unfortunately, there is no private school data base collection to prove or refute those claims.

The study suggests that preschool teachers with training by early childhood mental health consultants were only half as likely to use expulsion as a solution for a preschooler's behavior problem. But, only about 23 percent of preschool educators have the availability for this training.

The bulk of research shows that expulsions and arrest practices do nothing to make schools safer or more effective. Perhaps taxpayer dollars should be invested in better training for preschool teachers and more counselors to help with classroom and behavior management instead of converting classrooms into mini-courtrooms to turn very young children into criminals.

Over the last five years, Texas legislators have attempted to curb this practice by legislation preventing the issuance of tickets to 10-year-olds, but an attempt to eliminate the practice of tickets in public school altogether has been largely dismissed.

It's been proven by study after study that children labeled early as "problem students" live up to that expectation. Four year old troublemakers become academic failures who drop out of school, bond with other hopeless youth and go straight to jail and then to prison.

In Texas, it costs about $25,000 annually to keep a prisoner behind bars and that amount doesn't count the incalculable cost of the waste of human potential and misery. The average cost to educate a child is about $8,400 per year.

Texas is faced with a choice: Pay more for training educators and counseling for preschoolers or pay for incarceration later. Which choice is more sensible and humane?

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