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
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.
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.
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.
|| per 100 students
Source: Ohio Department of Education; Enquirer research
• Why kindergarteners get into trouble
• These schools send problem kids home
• Find your school.
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
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
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
"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
Punishments range from after-school detention to expulsion. Why disciplinary
action was taken over the past three school years:
Source: Ohio Department of Education; Enquirer research