Tara Williams got a jarring phone call: Her 5-year-old son was being suspended from his Chicago school after throwing a chair and books at another student.
She later learned that the boy was trying to tell his teacher about being bullied by other children, but a speech impediment prevented the teacher from understanding, Williams said.
“Other kids were messing with him,” she said. “He was upset.”
After the incident three years ago, Williams joined a group of South Side parents fighting to end Chicago Public Schools’ suspensions of young students. The group, Southside Parents United, also challenges the district to find alternatives to such punishment.
In the 2013-14 school year, the most recent available, Illinois public school kindergarteners were suspended at least 2,090 times, state data show. Public preschool students were suspended at least 58 times. The cause of suspensions — including in- and out-of-school sanctions and a small number of outright expulsions — range from classroom disruptions to bullying or fighting.
The state figures represent an 18 percent decline from the prior year but they are still too high, critics say. In Chicago, there were 368 suspensions of kindergartners, also down from the previous year but up significantly from two years earlier.
Parents such as Williams and a number of child development experts say suspension should be an absolute last resort for all school-aged students and there ought to be an outright ban on such discipline for children in preschool through second grade. Suspension can increase the likelihood of a student dropping out of high school and the punishments disproportionately target African-Americans and children with disabilities, critics charge.
“It is a terrible message to send children and families,” said Gillian McNamee, a professor at child development graduate school Erikson Institute in Chicago. “It is alarming.”
The state data, obtained by the Better Government Association through a Freedom of Information Act request, actually undercount the total public school suspensions. Among other things, the Illinois State Board of Education, which collects the data, doesn’t provide figures for districts that report fewer than 10 suspensions.
According to state data, most suspensions are only for one or two days, but there were 55 suspensions of kindergarteners for five days or more.
CPS revised its rules last year to say children below second grade may not be suspended, though exceptions can be made when a student “presents an imminent endangerment to the physical, emotional, or mental safety of specific students [or] staff.”
Without providing figures, CPS officials said the number of suspensions of young students fell in the school year that just ended in June.
Overall, the district is working to reduce suspensions for students in all grades, said Karen Van Ausdal, CPS executive director of social emotional learning.
“If students are not in school they are not going to be successful,” Van Ausdal said.
There’s a caveat to lower suspension numbers at CPS. For one, the district stopped including charter school suspensions in its total count in the last year. In previous years, it provided only partial data on the district’s more than 100 charter schools, which accounted for a high number of suspensions.
The figures also don’t count instances where parents are asked to pick up children from school but there is no documentation of an actual suspension, parents and child advocates say.
The largest school district in the state, CPS also led in number of kindergarten suspensions. Peoria School District 150 was second with 129 suspensions and Rockford School District 205 was third with 125.
Two-thirds of school districts outside of Chicago suspended at least one kindergartener in the 2013-14 school year. More than 20 school districts, including the Harvey and Calumet City school districts, suspended one out every 10 kindergarten students.
African-American students are more likely to be suspended.
According to state data, 68 percent of the CPS kindergartners suspended in the 2013-14 school year were black even though less than half the kindergarten population was African-American.
Cahokia Community Unified School District 187 near St. Louis has a particularly high rate of suspension of kindergarteners. Of 320 kindergarteners in the 2013-14 school year, almost a third were suspended at least once, state data show.
Cahokia is more than 90 percent minority and low income. More than a third of residents live below the poverty level.
Superintendent Arthur Ryan defends the practice of suspending young kids.
“We need [parents] to know that they have to take an active role with their children and they need to make sure they are modeling good behavior,” he said.
Vicki Jacobson, assistant superintendent of elementary education in Rockford Public Schools, said her district does not suspend young children for talking back or disobedience. But Rockford still has a list of offenses for which there is “zero tolerance” for which students must be suspended. They include battery and possession of a weapon.
A bill passed by the Illinois Legislature and awaiting Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature would outlaw so-called zero-tolerance policies.
Rauner’s education officials declined to talk about suspensions.
For many districts, understanding a child’s learning disability or other emotional issues may head off problems that historically resulted in suspensions, special education experts say.
“There’s a striking number of children who need mental health help,” said Charles Wysong, an attorney for the disabled advocacy nonprofit Equip for Equality.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Sarah Karp.