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For Youngest Students, A Hard Lesson

Schools In State Suspend Hundreds Of 4- To 6-Year-Olds

Suspensions for Violence

A Question of Suspensions

May 4, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

A popular image of a student suspended from school is of a teenager loafing in front of a TV or getting in trouble on the streets.

But high school students aren't the only ones being suspended these days. During the 2003-04 school year, districts throughout Connecticut reported handing out 1,363 suspensions to 898 youngsters in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade for violence, weapons or threats. Most were out-of-school suspensions.

Hundreds more young children were suspended for other reasons, but exact numbers are not available because the state requires districts to report suspensions for violent offenses only. Hartford, for example, actually handed out 547 suspensions in 2003-04 - more than twice the 257 reported to the state - and New Haven suspended 267, compared with 139 that it reported to the state.

Aside from Hartford, just two other school districts in the state reported suspending pre-kindergartners - one in Norwich and two at Highville Mustard Seed Charter School in Hamden. Hartford, by comparison, suspended 13 pre-kindergarten students. Five were reported to the state because they involved fighting, vandalism, a sexual offense or harassment.

The question of whether to suspend students is one of the most passionate debates in public education - and never more heated than when suspensions are used to discipline children as young as 4 and 5.

Zero-tolerance policies created in response to school violence around the nation make some suspensions automatic regardless of a child's age. But educators do have wide discretion on how to handle many behaviors.

Those who object to banishing the youngest children from school say they worry about how the punishment may affect the children's attitude toward school. Some educators counter that some students' behavior is so abominable that it puts the students, their peers and the teachers at risk.

"Some of these kids have significant mental health concerns," said Jon Walek, director of pupil services in New Britain. "I mean really unruly - stabbing kids with pencils, slapping, urinating in class, taking their clothes off."

State Child Advocate Jeanne Milstein scoffs at the notion that young children pose a serious threat. Calling the rate of suspensions a "wake-up call" for the state, she said: "The safety of all children in a classroom is paramount. However, suspending or expelling a child so young is ridiculous. Removing a child does not solve the problem. Teachers need to be trained. ... Parents need to be fully involved in their children's lives and everyone needs to be addressing any problem behaviors through programming."

Still Smarting

Anixa Santiago still can't get over her son Onyx's one-day suspension from Hartford's Noah Webster Elementary School when he was a 4-year-old kindergartner two years ago.

The neighborhood police officer had spoken to Onyx's class that day and coached students to stay away from guns, Santiago recalls. The talk was Onyx's first exposure to the existence of guns, she said, because she carefully monitored his television shows and purposely kept toy guns away from him so he would not view weapons as benign.

Some time after the officer left, Onyx got mad at a classmate and told the boy he was going to shoot him, Santiago said. Onyx's teacher told Santiago that she had no choice but to send him to the principal's office because of a zero-tolerance policy for violence. The school's assistant principal suspended Onyx for the threat.

The next day, as Santiago used a vacation day from work to supervise her son's punishment, she let him play and watch television. "I didn't know how to explain to him that he can't talk about what they talk about in school." Hoping he would forget about the whole concept of guns, she said, "I didn't bring it up."

Beth Bye, director of early childhood for the Capitol Region Education Council, said young children are fascinated by violence. "Four-year-olds - their fantasy play is about power and control. To 4-year-olds, death is the most fascinating thing for them."

Although conflict is common among children so young because they are learning to co-exist, she said, teachers can train them to use words rather than fists and to follow rules.

Santiago is among a growing group of Hartford residents calling for an end to out-of-school suspensions for all grades. "A student doesn't learn anything at home," she said. "It's more of a vacation for the older kids. They're happy to stay home. And for the younger kids, it's more of a punishment to the parents."

Noah Webster Principal Freeman Burr, who was not the administrator who suspended Onyx, said suspensions are a last resort for children who don't respond to other alternatives. Rather than send kids home, Burr said he would prefer to offer supervised suspensions in school, but is unable to because of staff cuts. "I haven't had inside suspension in years. I don't have a budget for it."

A substitute teacher complained to the school board that inadequate staffing in some classes with young children left teachers overwhelmed, and a parent from Rocky Hill took her daughter out one of the city's magnet schools because she said inadequate staffing caused her daughter's pre-kindergarten class to fall into "chaos."

Principals at the two schools that were the subjects of the complaints said that when classroom aides are present, there is adequate staffing.

Behind The Numbers

Many Hartford teachers struggle with student defiance, even from some young children. In recent years, the teachers' union has been arguing for a stricter discipline policy.

Hartford Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry won't release the reasons for the hundreds of suspensions that the district is not required to report to the state, so it's impossible to know what criteria principals used.

A review of the punishments that are reported shows that last year one of the young children took a knife to school, another was suspended for having drugs or alcohol, a dozen were suspended for sexual harassment or undisclosed sexual offenses, and most of the rest of the cases dealt with fights or altercations.

Although sending a child home during the day or directing the child to stay home the next day technically constitutes a suspension, Patsy V. Darity, Hartford's acting assistant superintendent for student support services, said she considers suspensions more of a "timeout" for the youngest students. Because Hartford has a larger enrollment than most of the other districts in the state, she said, it's not fair to compare its statistics with those of other cities.

Waterbury reported 371 suspensions of pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade students to the state last year, compared with the 257 in Hartford.

The gap in the numbers of suspensions and those reported to the state makes it difficult to compare cities or to get an accurate view of total suspensions across the state. And it suggests that the state should change its reporting requirements to require reporting of all suspensions, not just those relating to school violence, said Paul Flinter, bureau chief for early childhood education for the state Department of Education.

State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairman of the education committee, said he would support legislation mandating reporting of all suspensions. "In the case of small children, it's almost never about a threat to school safety," he said. "Suspensions of small children should be rare and far between. When they happen, I want to know why, and so should any policy-maker."

Parents and some experts in early childhood education say suspensions of young children reflect directly on the teachers and their ability to manage their classrooms.

"It's not always the kids who are the problem," Flinter said. "Removal should be a last resort and suspension is removal."

By tracking all suspensions, Fleischmann said, the state will be able to identify weaknesses in teacher training in classroom management. "A well-prepared teacher should know how to deal with a small child with discipline issues. They shouldn't have to remove the child from the room, let alone the school."

George Sugai, recently hired to teach at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education and to develop an East Coast office of his Oregon-based Center on Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, said that sometimes children misbehave to get attention. And he and Bye say that when children are engaged by the curriculum and they understand the rules, then they generally behave well.

New Strategies

This year, Hartford is experimenting with alternatives to suspensions, and a committee of teachers, students, parents and administrators has been meeting to develop a plan to reduce suspensions in all grades, Darity said.

In the elementary schools this year, Hartford created "critical thinking" rooms in 10 schools. Each room has a full-time teacher, and classroom teachers send students there before their behavior reaches the crisis point. There, the teacher helps students write a plan to improve behavior, Darity said. The plan may include apologizing to a student or to the classroom teacher, along with other strategies for getting along in the classroom.

SAND Elementary School Principal Cecilia J. Green said she offers to let parents spend a few hours in school with their children to monitor their behavior, rather than suspending children.

Bye suggests that a healthy dose of time for play would help children burn off their energy and learn to socialize. "If you put a kid in school all day and make them sit, you'll lose every time. Are we asking 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds to sit more now than we did 10 years ago? Curriculum is so scripted now."

Leah Fichtner, senior director of health services in Hartford, said schools are expecting more from youngsters now than in the past. "It's not just Hartford. Throughout the nation, there is increasing stress on kids to do well on standardized tests."

But even with the added stress of the tests on teachers and students, "The superintendent doesn't want to see children suspended," Fichtner said. "None of us do."

A discussion of this story with Courant Staff Writer Rachel Gottlieb is scheduled to be shown on New England Cable News each hour today between 9 a.m. and noon.


Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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