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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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