OMAHA, Neb. – I received a call from my sons’ school in March telling me that my oldest needed to be picked up early. He had been given a one-day suspension because he had thrown a chair. He did not hit anyone, but he could have, the school officials told me.
JJ was 4 at the time.
I agreed his behavior was inappropriate, but I was shocked that it resulted in a suspension.
For weeks, it seemed as if JJ was on the chopping block. He was suspended two more times, once for throwing another chair and then for spitting on a student who was bothering him at breakfast. Again, these are behaviors I found inappropriate, but I did not agree with suspension.
Still, I kept quiet. I knew my history. I was the bad preschooler.
I was expelled from preschool and went on to serve more suspensions than I can remember. But I do remember my teachers’ disparaging words. I remember being told I was bad and believing it. I remember just how long it took me to believe anything else about myself.
And even still, when my children were born, I promised myself that I would not let my negative school experiences affect them. I believed my experience was isolated. I searched for excuses. Maybe I was just a bad kid. Maybe it had something to do with my father’s incarceration, which forced my mother to raise me and my brothers alone.
So I punished JJ at home and ignored my concerns. Then, two months later, I was called to pick up my 3-year-old son, Joah. Joah had hit a staff member on the arm. After that incident, they deemed him a “danger to the staff.” Joah was suspended a total of five times. In 2014, my children have received eight suspensions.
Just like before, I tried to find excuses. I looked at myself. What was I doing wrong? My children are living a comfortable life. My husband is an amazing father to JJ and Joah. At home, they have given us very few problems; the same goes for time with babysitters.
I blamed myself, my past. And I would have continued to blame myself had I not taken the boys to a birthday party for one of JJ’s classmates. At the party, the mothers congregated to talk about everyday parenting things, including preschool. As we talked, I admitted that JJ had been suspended three times. All of the mothers were shocked at the news.
“JJ?” one mother asked.
“My son threw something at a kid on purpose and the kid had to be rushed to the hospital,” another parent said. “All I got was a phone call.”
One after another, white mothers confessed the trouble their children had gotten into. Some of the behavior was similar to JJ’s; some was much worse.
Most startling: None of their children had been suspended.
After that party, I read a study reflecting everything I was living.
Black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but make up 48 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension, according to the study released by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights in March.
I immediately thought back to my own childhood. I thought back to the humiliating labels that greeted me before I could read. I thought back to the number of black friends and family members who also were suspended and expelled. I thought about my family and friends who had not overcome the detrimental effects of being suspended in preschool. I did not want that for JJ and Joah. I did not want it for any child.
But the next step was the hardest. At news of all of this, friends and relatives suggested that I pull my children out of the preschool program and move them into another. At first, I considered that. That move may have changed my kids’ circumstances, but it would not have solved the problem. All across this country, black children are being suspended in preschool.
We can no longer put a Band-Aid on our nation’s preschool-to-prison pipeline, which pushes children out of the education system and criminalizes relatively minor offenses. Moving my boys to another school would have provided a stopgap solution. It may have solved my problem, but it would not have solved the problem.
The problem is not that we have a bunch of racist teachers and administrators. I believe most educators want to help all children. But many aren’t aware of the biases and prejudices that they, like all of us, harbor, and our current system offers very little diversity training to preschool staff.
A recent study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the subjects – mostly white, female undergraduates – viewed black boys as older and less innocent than their white peers. When photos of children were paired with descriptions of crimes, the subjects judged the black children to be more culpable for their actions than their white or Latino counterparts and estimated that they were an average of 4.5 years older than they actually were.
Authority figures strip black boys of their innocence at younger ages than white children. Diversity training for teachers and administrators would raise their awareness of how subconscious prejudices can drive racial discrepancies in disciplinary action.
I know that I am only one person and that it will be difficult for me to change the system. But I will do my part at my kids’ preschool. I joined the parent advisory board and intend to work with it until I see change. I encourage other parents to join parent boards and attend school meetings that are open to parents. This is not the time to be silent. We must speak out. I cannot go back and undo what was done to me, but I refuse to let it be done to my children.
Tunette Powell is a motivational speaker and author. She is co-founder of The Truth Heals, a nonprofit for individuals and families affected by fatherlessness.