The School to Prison Pipeline Comes to Pre-K

By Elliott Gluck
Associate Editor, Volume 23

image.pngFor years, the startling rates of suspensions and expulsions in America’s public schools have raised concerns for stakeholders across the educational landscape.[1] These disciplinary actions are frequently connected with higher drop-out rates, lower lifetime earnings, and higher rates of incarceration.[2] With African American students facing expulsion and suspension at over three times the rate of their non-Hispanic white peers and American Indian students overrepresented in exclusionary discipline by six times their overall school enrollment, a clear pattern of racial disparity emerges in the current approach to school discipline.[3] Startlingly, in the last few years, research has shown these disparities in school discipline are not confined to K-12, but extend to preschools as well.[4]

The first major study exploring suspensions and expulsions in preschools came from Walter S. Gilliam and Golan Shahar in 2006.[5] Their Massachusetts study showed that preschool expulsions occurred at over 34 times the rate of K-12 expulsions and were influenced by larger class sizes, younger enrollees, and elevated “teacher job stress.”[6] While Massachusetts had a relatively low K-12 expulsion rate, these preschool expulsions still occurred at more than 13 times the national K-12 average.[7] Gilliam and Shahar noted that while all states have legal requirements for school attendance starting between ages five and eight, no such law exists for pre-K programs.[8] The authors suggest that, “these laws may reduce expulsion during the K-12 years, because the expulsion would create a legal problem for the parents who would then need to find educational programming for children elsewhere.”[9]

While the 2006 study from Gilliam and Shahar did not find statistically significant disparities between racial groups, data released from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 2014 showed that just like in the K-12 space, African American students are clearly overrepresented in preschool pushout practices.[10] The study showed that, “while African American children make up 18 percent of enrollment in preschool, they account for 42 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 48 percent of those receiving multiple suspensions.”[11] The disparities in pre-K were not limited to suspensions as African American students were expelled at twice the rate of their Hispanic and non-Hispanic white peers in the over 30 states that explicitly permit preschool expulsions.[12]

Research has also shown that racial biases play a significant role in these negative outcomes for young African American children. A 2014 study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that, “African American children were seen as less innocent and more deserving of punishment than their white peers.”[13] Additionally, these children were consistently viewed as older than their actual age which may add to the likelihood of African American children being stripped of “the benefit of being seen as innocent children.”[14] In a follow-up to his prior research on preschool suspensions and expulsions, Walter S. Gilliam explored preschool teachers’ perceptions of students, finding that, “early education staff tend to observe more closely Blacks, and especially Black boys when challenging behaviors are expected.”[15] The study also found that white teachers tend to have lower expectations for black students, which has been found to be linked to unfavorable outcomes later on in students’ lives.[16]

If the goal of early childhood education is to put kids on the path to success in and out of the classroom, suspending and expelling 3 and 4-year-olds for developmentally typical behavior is never the right approach. With racial disparities already clearly in play in the K-12 system, African American children who are facing suspension and expulsion from preschool will find themselves more likely to be pushed out of school later in their academic careers.[17] In order to dismantle the school to prison pipeline and close the achievement gap for students of color, preschools should eliminate expulsions and push educators to unpack racial biases that affect the way they interact with the children in their classroom.

[1] Maryam Adamu & Lauren Hogan, Point of Entry: The Preschool-to-Prison Pipeline 7 (2015),

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 1.

[4] Id. at 6.

[5] See generally Walter S. Gilliam & Golan Shahar, Preschool and Child Care Expulsion and Suspension: Rates and Predictors in One State, 19 Infants & Young Child. 228 (2006).

[6] Id. at 228.

[7] Id. at 236.

[8] Id. at 240.

[9] Id.

[10] Adamu & Hogan, supra note 1, at 5.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 6.

[13] Id. at 8.

[14]  Id.

[15] Walter S. Gilliam et al., Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? 11 (2016),

[16] Id. at 11-12.

[17] Adamu & Hogan, supra note 1, at 2.