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Classroom disruptions bring suspensions for … kindergartners

Editor's note: The ongoing national debate about whether expelling disruptive kindergarteners came up in Atlanta as reporter Eric Stirgus found and reported on the numbers in metro Atlanta.

Original story: Temper tantrums. Chair tossing. Striking a classmate or a teacher.

Rowdy high school students, right? No, these are the actions of kindergarten students, metro Atlanta educators say. Georgia’s four largest school districts — Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett — each reported more than 100 suspensions of kindergarten students so far this school year, according to data reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Educators say parents are becoming more vocal about not wanting their children in classes with unruly students. Some local school districts are paying attention to the disturbing data and looking for ways to improve classroom behavior on that grade level.

“You just never think kindergarten students are being suspended like that,” said LaQuanda Plantt, 36, whose son is a fourth-grader at Corley Elementary School in Gwinnett County.

Plantt was surprised students that young are being suspended from school, but she recently saw a YouTube video on her smartphone that showed two girls said to be first-graders fighting on a school bus. The online site also has a video that shows seven boys punching and kicking each other under the headline “Kindergarten after school fight.”

She blames the behavior on kids mimicking aggressive behavior they see on television and some parents unwilling to discipline their children. Plantt said she’s heard stories from friends who are teachers about trouble-making students.

“When they are not fearful of being disciplined, there are no consequences,” Plantt said.

Federal statistics show an increase in kindergarten and even pre-kindergarten students suspended from school nationwide. In 2003, less than 1 percent of K and pre-K students were suspended. In 2012, the most recent year available, about 3 percent of students in those grades were suspended.

Gwinnett County school officials noted at a recent meeting an increase in kindergartner suspensions. There were 111 out-of-school suspensions in comparison to 86 from the same time period in 2015.

“This suggests our students are entering kindergarten with a lower level of maturity,” James Taylor, Gwinnett’s executive director of academic support, told school board members.

Others say teachers are unprepared to handle students with behavioral problems and school administrators are overeager to send a child home from school for the slightest disciplinary issue.

“There’s a whole range of things to do to calm students down,” said Daniel Losen, a former teacher who is director of the Center of Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. “The research doesn’t support suspending kids from school. It’s outrageous.”

Officials in Gwinnett, the state’s largest school district, say most suspensions are for classroom disruptions such as repeatedly knocking down or throwing items, emotional breakdowns or pushing or shoving a classmate.

In Atlanta, the greatest number of kindergarten suspensions was for students accused of physically harming a student or a teacher.

In DeKalb County, which has had 141 suspensions of kindergarten students so far this school year, the largest number of suspensions was for various forms of battery or incivility. One kindergarten student was suspended for bullying. There’s been a suspension for drug possession. Another kindergartner was suspended under the category of “sex offense - lewd behavior.”

Educators and experts say more children are entering kindergarten with little experience in a classroom setting and are unwilling to abide by a teacher’s rules.

“A lot of kids don’t know what the meaning of the word ‘no’ is,” said Cindy Antrim, a retired Gwinnett principal who is now assistant director of the school district’s office of student discipline.

But shouldn’t teachers be able to handle a five-year-old?

“They’ve done everything they can before they go to suspension,” Antrim said.

In Gwinnett, Antrim said teachers have intervention meetings with parents about their children when they’ve been accused of starting trouble.

Atlanta officials started a program called Social Emotional Learning this school year in some schools that aims, in part, to help students better manage their emotions. The curriculum begins in pre-kindergarten. School district data show Atlanta is on pace to have fewer suspensions in the most serious categories this year.

Some parents and guardians are critical of how Atlanta deals with students the district says are seriously misbehaving in class. Tomeka Gadson, who has custody of her 5-year-old grandson, Jeremy Bacote, was dumbfounded when school officials said he was tossing chairs and having temper tantrums last school year in his pre-kindergarten class.

“I had never experienced that type of behavior from him,” said Gadson, who didn’t believe the claims.

The boy’s grandmother said he was excluded from a field trip. APS officials say there are no records he wasn’t allowed to go.

Gadson thought Jeremy, whom she described as bright and articulate, wasn’t being challenged enough in the classroom. Officials at Finch Elementary School placed him in a behavioral intervention program and categorized him as a special education student, she said.

“He didn’t want to go to school,” she said. “He would cry Monday through Friday.”

Gadson didn’t want him there, either, and she appealed to district officials. Jeremy returned to kindergarten at Finch at the start of this school year, then was transferred to Cleveland Avenue Elementary School. He’s doing better there now, she said, and there have been no further reports of Jeremy being disruptive in class.

African-American boys, Gadson said, are too frequently labeled as disruptive or trouble-makers and suspended or placed in behavioral programs.

“I did not want him to be a statistic,” she said.

Local and state school districts said they did not have data detailing the racial demographics of kindergarten students suspended. Federal data show black and Hispanic students are disproportionately suspended from pre-kindergarten. In 2012, the most recent year available, two-thirds of pre-kindergarten students suspended from public schools were black or Hispanic.

Some educators and community activists have protested the disciplinary actions by schools, pointing to studies that show students who get in disciplinary trouble in early grades are less likely to graduate high school. In 2012, Milledgeville police drew heavy criticism after they handcuffed a 6-year-old girl officials said had a tantrum at school.

State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, a Democrat who represents part of south DeKalb, introduced legislation this year aimed at finding different ways to work with young students who are being suspended from school. She wrote the bill, in part, because of concerns about the high percentage of black and Hispanic students suspended from school.

Some teachers said the proposal would add another burden to their overburdened workload. Kendrick said she understood the concern and her legislation will not move forward this year. Still, she is worried about the increase in suspensions. Out-of-school suspensions for kindergarten through third-graders in Georgia have increased by 17.5 percent in the past five years, according to data Kendrick received from state officials.

“There’s no reason why a kindergarten student should be suspended,” she said. “There’s something else that needs to be addressed.”

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