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Thousands of suspensions are issued to elementary school children in the St. Louis area each year for infractions ranging from throwing chairs to mouthing off.

Among those punished are kindergartners who bite. Preschoolers with toileting mishaps during nap time. Second-graders who throw snowballs. They also include children who commit more serious offenses, such as starting fights with classmates and carrying illegal drugs in their backpacks.

The rash of suspensions has resulted in a loss of tens of thousands of instructional hours in the St. Louis area alone, with minority children catching the brunt of them.

And it has happened even as districts leaders with the highest suspension rates say the punishment should be used only as a last resort.

“In the number of years I’ve been doing this, I don’t know that you could find evidence that out-of-school suspension really does anything for students,” said Scott Spurgeon, superintendent of Riverview Gardens schools, where about 4,200 elementary school suspensions were issued last year. However, “I don’t know the system is set up so we have alternate choices.”

To be sure, the numbers illustrate some of the challenges teachers face when confronted with students whose behavior they can neither manage nor understand.

In struggling districts, where most of the elementary suspensions are happening, some teachers have been placed in classrooms without the training to help them manage high concentrations of children who struggle both academically and socially.

Adding to the problem is a gap between suspension rates of black and white students in Missouri public schools — the widest in the nation, according to a study the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released earlier this month, which used data from the 2011-12 school year.

“They’re the children being overly suspended and kept out,” said Amanda Schneider, an attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, whose clients include parents of suspended children. “They’re low-income clients. They’re in poverty. They have children who need intensive services and supports.”

Many might think of suspension as a phenomenon mainly affecting defiant adolescents. Overall, data provided to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by area districts show suspension rates are highest at the middle and high school levels.

But in some districts, such as St. Louis, Ritenour and Hazelwood, educators routinely issue more suspensions to first-graders than to 12th-graders.

In districts across the area, schools are cracking down on younger students for behavior some experts say is typical.

In the St. Charles School District, for example, three suspensions were issued last year to kindergartners and first-graders who failed to follow instructions, according to district suspension records.

In Riverview Gardens, four suspensions were issued to first-graders who brought toy guns to school, district records say.

In Normandy, a preschooler was sent home indefinitely for wetting his pants during nap time, his mother said at a recent public forum.

Some elementary school children are spending as many as 10 days at home, causing them to fall behind. Others end up in neighborhood day care facilities or at work with their parents.

They include Raheema Wilson’s fourth-grade daughter, who was suspended for three days last fall from Lucas Crossing Elementary School in Normandy for talking back to her teacher.

“She didn’t have any homework to do,” Wilson said. So, “She came home, helped me clean the house and wash clothes.”

‘SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE’

Some experts say a cycle begins when a child is suspended in the early grades. It initiates what some refer to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The stigma of having been suspended follows students. As they move up a grade, new teachers expect bad behavior, leading to a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Suspending a first-grader for disruptive conduct may restore order. But often, the child returns to school with the same behavior patterns, unless root causes are addressed. This can be compounded when the child slips even further academically.

Larry Gilmore said this was what happened to his son. The boy was repeatedly suspended from schools in Collinsville starting in first grade, Gilmore said. In middle school, he was sent home for resting his head on his desk. The boy dropped out as a 10th-grader and is now at a juvenile detention center, Gilmore said.

“He just kept falling behind,” he said.

Ideally, experts say, preschools would work early to help with social and emotional growth. But a 2011 report from the University of Missouri-Columbia shows that Missouri’s state-funded preschools expel children at twice the national rate — initiating a pattern than continues into elementary school.

“We would never suspend a child because they’re struggling with math. But we do suspend children when they’re struggling to get along with people,” Lisa Eberle-Mayse, director of inclusion services for United for Children, a childcare support agency. “What it gets down to is there’s a whole area of social and emotional development that we aren’t paying the right kind of attention to.”

CULTURAL BIAS

Arriving at the sort of remedies needed to help stem suspensions requires some educators to cross cultural divides.

Teachers often don’t understand the poverty and how it manifests itself in classroom behavior, Eberle-Mayse said. And they aren’t always aware of biases or misconceptions they might have toward children of different racial groups.

In Kirkwood, while African-American students made up about 14 percent of enrollment last year, they constituted 71 percent of suspensions, according to district data. In Ferguson-Florissant schools, black children made up 80 percent of enrollment but 92 percent of the district’s suspensions. And in Lindbergh schools, black students make up 4 percent of enrollment but 16 percent of last year’s suspensions.

Some districts are providing teachers with cultural responsiveness training to help them better understand minority and low-income students and how to communicate with them.

“Our first step is to admit that we have a problem,” said Chris Raeker, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Kirkwood, whose suspension numbers shot up last year when African-American transfer students from the Riverview Gardens School District began attending its schools. The teaching staff in Kirkwood is mostly white.

Many say biases show up when teachers misinterpret actions of some students — but not all — as aggressive behavior. A black male who remains standing after being told to sit, for instance, may be disciplined for disrespect, whereas an Asian or white female student may not.

“We all have a our biases,” Raeker said. “We don’t recognize our biases. One of the things we’re trying to understand — what do minority students need from us when they walk through the door?”

SUBJECTIVE DISCIPLINE

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On March 10, St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams told the district’s governing board that his staff was exploring the gray areas that result in hundreds of suspensions in city schools each year.

Nearly one out of five of the 3,989 total suspensions last school year was for “insubordination/disrespect,” a category that could mean any number of things. Determining what is or isn’t disrespectful — such as a student’s turning his head or stomping his foot — relies too much on the subjectivity of a teacher or administrator, Adams said.

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District banned school staff from suspending students for “willful defiance,” which could include any behavior ranging from dress code violations to talking back.

In many cases districts have no flexibility. Many school district policies require that the most serious offenses, such as bringing weapons to school and physical assault, result in suspension, with the intent of protecting other students in the classroom.

Since Adams became superintendent in 2008, the out-of-school suspension rate is down by more than half, district numbers show, partly because disruptive older students have been sent instead to alternative schools and online education programs.

Most elementary schools in the city don’t have in-school suspension options. Last year, 1,422 suspensions went to children in elementary school. Almost 200 suspensions were of kindergartners. Eight were of preschoolers.

“That’s eight too many,” Adams said. “I don’t know that they even understand.”

Next year a Therapeutic School will open in the district to serve children who often need more emotional and social support.

WORKING ON DISPARITIES

Throughout north St. Louis County, districts have been working to address the racial disparities and overall suspension rates.

In Normandy, in-school-suspension rooms were put in place in January. Out-of-school suspensions have dropped about 50 percent since October, when more than 600 were issued district-wide, said Candice Carter-Oliver, an assistant superintendent for Normandy.

In Jennings, mental health workers paid for through the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund are embedded in every building.

The agencies have helped guide children with behavior issues and serve as a resource to parents and staff, said Phillip Boyd, the district’s assistant superintendent of support and innovation.

“Not only is this a different approach than what had occurred in prior years, it is also the right way to approach education.”

Riverview Gardens also has developed partnerships with mental health agencies and other organizations working to help children learn the social and emotional skills they need to succeed in school.

But Spurgeon, the superintendent, would like to have in-school suspension rooms to keep children who’ve been disciplined engaged in their studies. This would require additional staff — something Riverview Gardens can’t afford, Spurgeon said.

“We don’t have extra resources to ensure we can provide other alternatives for students, to provide them a learning opportunity rather than consequences,” he said.

Elementary School Suspensions

The Missouri and Illinois school districts in the region with the highest rates of elementary school suspensions in 2011-12, with total number of children suspended. (Rate equals total children suspended divided by enrollment.)

School District Suspension Rate Total Suspensions
Cahokia 40.00% 10
St. Louis 29.12% 3470
Normandy 21.65% 525
Riverview Gardens 21.43% 750
Brooklyn 14.29% 15
Jennings 10.89% 165
Ritenour 10.21% 290
East St. Louis 9.62% 295
Ferguson-Florissant 8.97% 605
Madison 8.70% 30
Hazelwood 8.21% 630
University City 7.28% 110
Valley Park 5.61% 30
Maplewood-Richmond Heights 5.48% 40
Collinsville 5.36% 195
Alton 5.14% 145
Hancock Place 4.38% 35
Wright City 4.35% 30
East Alton 4.12% 20
Affton 3.76% 40

Racial Gap in Suspensions

Missouri ranked last among 50 states in a UCLA study for having the highest gap in suspension rates between black and white elementary school pupils in 2011-12. Listed below are the Missouri and Illinois school districts in the region with the highest such gap in the suspension rate, by percentage points.

School District Racial Gap
Cahokia 50
East Alton 29.84
St. Louis 28.5
Valley Park 19.62
Jennings 11.07
Bayless 10.27
Rockwood 10.23
East St. Louis 9.82
Madison 9.52
Lindbergh 9.31
Riverview Gardens 9.22
Hancock Place 9.02
Ritenour 8.12
Hazelwood 7.51
Ferguson-Florissant 7.14
Parkway 7.08
Pattonville 6.17
Collinsville 5.87
Alton 5.64

Still a challenge

Several school districts report having fewer suspensions in recent years, while others show an increase. Below is the number of suspensions from preschool through fifth grade in 2013-14 for a selection of area school districts. 

School District Suspensions
Ferguson-Florissant 98
Hazelwood 1605
Jennings 156
Kirkwood 62
Lindbergh 24
Maplewood-Richmond Heights 21
Normandy 523
Ritenour 513
Riverview Gardens 4132
Rockwood 198
St. Charles 79
St. Louis 1422
Webster Groves 52
Wentzville 116

Elisa Crouch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.