The Preschool to Prison Pipeline Must Stop

Laws are created for society; society is not created for its laws. It’s both a biblical principle and common sense knowledge that laws are only as good as the ends they serve and the means by which they get there. When laws harmfully reshape our communities, it’s time to change them.

A recent report from CNN found that public preschools suspended 7,500 children nationwide last year. That’s right, these are suspensions from pre-school.

For what, you ask?

According to Dr. John Deasy, the Superintendent of the LAUSD, the majority of suspensions in his Los Angeles schools were for “willful defiance.”  “Willful defiance” became a “catch-all” for a wide range of behaviors, from refusal to remove hats inside, to failure to do homework and forgetting notebooks.

That is right. 3-year-olds are being suspended from schools for not doing what they are told, which is another way of saying 3-year-olds are being suspended for just being 3-year-olds!

Recently, the LA Unified School Board removed “willful disobedience” as a justification for suspension by a 5-2 vote (I must wonder if the 2 dissenters were ever children themselves). As the LA Times reported, it’s unlikely this disciplinary practice will be missed:

“Instead, school officials would be required to keep students on campus and hold them accountable through alternatives shown to be more effective…which have reduced office discipline referrals by up to 50% in 13,000 schools using them nationwide…”

We need to step back from “zero tolerance” policies and harsh suspensions and step into the modern era. If we want our kids to learn and grow into contributing members of our communities, we should be actively looking around to see what works, not just what “sounds good” or “feels good.” We know what doesn’t work:

“…suspensions did not lead to better behavior but were linked to poor academic achievement and run-ins with law enforcement.”  LA Times 2013

“…by criminalizing routine disciplinary problems, [policies] have damaged the lives of many children by making them more likely to drop out and entangling them, sometimes permanently, in the criminal justice system.” NY Times 2013

Zero-tolerance policies are bad for all children and communities, but they are especially harmful to minority children.

According to CNN, “black students are being suspended at a rate 3x greater than white students across all grades.” The NYC School-Justice Partnership found that black students were “14 times more likely to be arrested because of school-based incidents than their white peers; Hispanic students…five times more likely.”

We must change the “preschool to prison pipeline” and refocus our effort on educating and graduating kids instead of punishing them for being kids. We can start by changing the zero-tolerance policies, just one example of a failure holding us back. But we can’t stop there. We need better investments in our schools. We need to provide parents with the tools to continue to reinforce education when kids get home. Rather than defaulting to the easiest, worst practices, we need to base our educational decisions on the many successful, working examples out there.

You can start by contacting your Congressperson or school board officials. Whether you have children or not, you can make a difference by finding out the school policies in your community.

The most important step in the right direction is the first one. It’s hard to change the status quo, but if we want to make a difference and raise up the next generation right, we need to engage.  Become a mentor. Volunteer to read for an hour to kids at the library. Buy some children’s books for the local homeless or battered women’s shelter. There are small ways to make a difference, too.

If we’re truly worried about discipline and character, we need to set good examples, we need to educate others, we need to reach outside of ourselves…we need to invest in the next generation, not throw them in jail.


Lindsey Bergholz is an intern for Eleison Group, a consulting firm that seeks “to align what is right with what works politically and economically.” She is a graduate of the University of Miami, a law student at George Washington, and a bookworm who occasionally takes a break from geeking-out to volunteer with animals.

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