Sunday, February 22, 2004

Kicked out of kindergarten

Tougher discipline reaches lower grades, but do suspension, expulsion really work?

By Jennifer Mrozowski and John Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A student at Quebec Heights School in Price Hill strikes his classmates and kicks a teacher.

A student at Princeton's Woodlawn Elementary stabs another kid in the face with a plastic fork.

A student at New Burlington Elementary in Springfield Township urinates in a garbage can.

All three students are expelled or suspended from school.

All three students are kindergartners.

Forget recess, storybook corner and sharing hour.

For some 5-year-olds, kindergarten means fights and classroom tantrums - behavior problems so severe that little kids sometimes are kicked out of school.

Punishment for beginners
Cincinnati and Dayton were the only big-city school districts in Ohio to expel kindergarteners in the 2002-03 year. Akron had the highest overall discipline rate.

District Expulsions Disciplines per 100 students
Akron 0 315 13.4
Canton 0 1 0.1
Cincinnati 5 310 9.8
Cleveland 0 37 0.7
Columbus 0 360 7.1
Dayton 1 98 7.1
Toledo 0 103 3.9
Youngstown 0 45 6.3
Source: Ohio Department of Education; Enquirer research

Why kindergarteners get into trouble
These schools send problem kids home
Find your school.

More than 200 times last year, Greater Cincinnati kindergartners were expelled or suspended from school for at least one day, an Enquirer analysis of city and suburban school records shows.

Kindergartners were expelled eight times in Cincinnati Public Schools - one of only four of Ohio's 612 public districts that took such extreme action. At least 15 local school districts also took the next most drastic step, suspending kindergartners and sending them home for a day or more.

The region is becoming known for its unusually strict discipline, beginning at the earliest stages of public education. Already this year, one child has been suspended from three kindergartens and asked to leave or be expelled from a fourth.

"Wow! That kind of shocks me," says Price Hill resident Karen Smith, a parent of two Carson School students and a daughter who'll be kindergarten-age next year. "Isn't there something else that can be done besides kicking them out of school? They're just starting."

Behavior problems, fighting and violence are the main reasons that schools discipline the youngest kids. But children also are being punished for stealing and trashing school property, pulling fire alarms and bringing weapons to class.

Experts blame many factors: Sex and violence on television and in video games, undiagnosed mental illness, poverty, fractured families and zero-tolerance for trouble at school. Kids are stressed out. And many kindergartens did away with naptime a decade or more ago.

Some teachers and administrators say they have to get tough when intemperate students - even 5-year-olds - make it impossible to teach well-behaved kids who are ready to learn. When children pose a danger to themselves or others, they must be removed from the classroom, these people say.

But others, including some parents and child advocates, say biting, kicking and temper tantrums are normal behavior for 5- and 6-year-olds. This group says that expelling or suspending kindergartners just sets children up for failure - at a far too tender age.

"If a child does something extreme, you have to look at why," says Rochelle Morton, former vice president of education and youth development at the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati. "Putting a child out of school is not going to help."

Punching the teacher

Tracie Ditchen, a kindergarten teacher at Windsor School, a city school in Walnut Hills, hates the thought of sending little kids home, too.

But that's what happened to a kindergartner who punched Ditchen when she tried to stop him from stabbing another child with a pencil. The same student punched a pregnant teacher in the stomach when she tried to stop him from leaving school grounds. The kindergartner was expelled after he slapped a security guard and knocked his glasses off.

This child was Windsor's only expulsion last year. But the school also twice suspended kindergartners out of school and issued 14 in-school suspensions or other penalties.

"Last year was so stressful because so many kids in our class had so many issues," says Ditchen, who shared 36 kindergartners with another teacher.

The stress and disruption contributed to other behavior problems, too, she says: One child, whose father had been shot, tried to throw himself down school stairs and said he wanted to hurt himself. The mother of another student took her child to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center three times for psychiatric observations. Two kindergartners exhibited autistic behavior, and another had extreme trouble paying attention. One child punched Ditchen in the back during small-group play.

Ditchen and other teachers say they send children home only after they've exhausted options including verbal warnings, time-outs in another teacher's classroom and parent conferences. Sometimes, teachers create behavior improvement plans and reward students when they meet goals.

"We really do not refer kids to the office unless they are a danger to themselves or others or such a disruption that you absolutely cannot teach with them in there," Ditchen says.

Some educators say suspending a young child can be a wake-up call for parents who aren't aware of problems that require the aid of mental health experts.

Some suspensions end up being settled by lawyers.

Last year, a Cincinnati public schools kindergartner went to the nurse's office with a scraped knee and ended up getting suspended and nearly expelled, according to the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati. Legal Aid lawyers say the girl was left alone in the nurse's office, where she found a bottle that resembled her mother's perfume and sprayed it. It turned out to be pepper spray.

The fire department was called, and the school sent the girl home. It also recommended expulsion for up to 80 days in accordance with the district's zero-tolerance policy regarding possession of a weapon, Legal Aid lawyer Elaine Fink says.

She says Legal Aid took the case to school district officials, who worked to get the child back into school as quickly as possible. Still, the girl was out of school for about a week, Fink says.

"The parent reported to us that the child was quite traumatized," she says.

School district lawyers agreed that the child should be allowed back in school.

"I was happy to work with Legal Aid to bring about an appropriate response to an unfortunate incident," C. Scott Romans, the school district's lawyer, says.

Suburban schools share many of the same problems as city schools, if not in the same numbers.

Princeton City Schools gave kindergartners 15 out-of-school suspensions for a maximum two days last year for bad behavior, fighting and theft. One child was suspended and sent home five times.

The Princeton district first tries to work with parents to change a child's behavior through counseling, associate superintendent Aaron Mackey says. But when options fail, children get sent home.

"It sends a message that we cannot tolerate any more misbehavior," Mackey says.

No kindergartners were expelled last year in Northern Kentucky schools. On nine occasions, however, kindergartners were suspended from school.

Candice Simpkins, principal of Grandview Elementary in Bellevue, says her school suspended a kindergartner once in the past three years, for biting a teacher.

Simpkins says she prefers in-school suspension. But in this case, she met with the parents and together they agreed to send the child home.

"I have 20-plus other children who witnessed this and parents who were concerned," she says. "It gave a day for everyone to regroup."

Help or hurt?

The big question is whether disciplining kindergartners helps or hurts the youngsters - and others in the classroom.

Columbus City Schools didn't expel any kindergartners last year. The district more than a decade ago started a center in every school building where problem kids get counseling and tutoring rather than being sent home immediately.

"The district typically only expels students, regardless of grade level, for bringing or possessing a weapon (in) school," district spokesman Michael Straughtersays.

Alton Frailey, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, says he's been concerned about expulsions and out-of-school suspensions ever since he moved from the Houston suburbs and took the top schools job here 16 months ago. Frailey says that when children with problems miss school for extended times, they fall farther behind in their school work, which causes them to act out again once they're back in school.

To break that cycle, Cincinnati Public Schools this month launched alternative learning centers so students who are expelled in grades 9-12 receive schooling outside their regular classrooms. The district does not yet offer alternative placement for elementary students who are expelled.

"The goal isn't to have children out of school," says Principal Shelley Stein at Quebec Heights School, who recommended expulsion for a kindergartner last year. "The goal is to have assistance for children. It's counterproductive to bring children back right away without assistance."

Walter S. Gilliam, associate research scientist at the Yale University Child Study Center, is researching suspension and expulsion rates of preschoolers nationwide. He says he's never seen a study that shows that suspending a kindergartner improves behavior.

"I would feel better about impelling a parent to come to school than expelling a child from it," he says.

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Why kindergarteners get into trouble
Behavioral problems and fighting or violence are cited most often when Cincinnati Public Schools officials discipline kindergarteners. Punishments range from after-school detention to expulsion. Why disciplinary action was taken over the past three school years:

Reason Percent of total
Behavior 55.9%
Fighting/violence 32.6%
Theft 3.3%
Vandalism 1.7%
Weapon 1.2%
Other 5.3%
Source: Ohio Department of Education; Enquirer research

T H E   D I L E M M A

Kicked out of kindergarten:
Discipline at lower grades
One kindergartner, four schools
Teaching kids to cooperate
Stress at young ages
What should a parent do?

Area schools lead
in tough discipline:

Do expulsions work?
Programs keep kids learning

Difference blamed on stereotypes, culture, poverty and behavior:
Black students disciplined more
Another chance engenders success at Winton Woods
The students speak: Their view on suspensions
A T   Y O U R   S C H O O L

See discipline rates for your school or school district and how those compare to others in your state. Find your school.
P H O T O  G A L L E R I E S

Christopher's story
Racism roundtable

Two parents on pros & cons
Alton L. Frailey, superintendent
Audrey J. Gover, teacher
Sue Taylor, Cincinnati Federation of Teachers

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