What to do with the disruptive 4-year-old? It sounds odd to ask the question, but it is one that faces classroom teachers across Louisiana, as our state's social problems and the difficulties faced by children of multi-generational poverty start to evidence themselves as early as kindergarten or even pre-K classrooms.
The issue has vexed members of the Legislature before, with lawmakers torn over the question of an outright ban on early-childhood suspensions out of school, but also aware that student discipline cannot be micromanaged from the State Capitol.
A harder look by a new panel has turned up surprising statistics: Nearly 8,000 students from pre-kindergarten through third grade were tossed out of public schools.
That list includes 1,050 kindergarten students who were handed out-of-school suspensions during the 2015-16 school year. That is only a portion of about 60,000 students suspended statewide, but they are mostly minorities and students from low-income families.
"I am absolutely shocked that you can have a kindergartener that has an experienced an out-of-school suspension," said Sherlyn Shumbert of Baton Rouge, a member of the Advisory Council on Student Behavior and Discipline.
The group is supposed to study school discipline policies, then provide annual reports to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and legislative committees.
It is only reasonable that the voices of those in the front lines are hear on this issue. Roy McCoy, principal of Beekman Charter School in Bastrop said it is possible for even a four or five-year-old "to do something so egregious" that it requires an out-of-school suspension. "I don't want to see us tie a school district's hands," McCoy told the study panel.
"What is the negative impact this will have on a child when they continue their education?" Shumbert asked. That question concerns policymakers because of the high correlation between suspensions and subsequent problems, including students from poor families not finishing school at all — as, so often, their parents did not finish before them.
"These to me are children who need help," said Jennifer Coco, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, who chairs the study panel.
She is right, and the state Department of Education has helped distribute mental health assessments that can be used by schools in these cases. The Policy Institute for Children said the state's initiatives have been helpful for school systems.
Nevertheless, we welcome any ideas from the new committee. Under a new state law, sponsored by state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville,school districts are required to come up with master plans for improving behavior and discipline in schools.
Louisiana's suspension rate mirrors problems nationwide: A July report by the American Academy of Pediatrics said young children are being bounced out of preschools at alarming rates.
In addition, black children are 3.6 times more likely to get preschool suspensions than white students, according to figures complied by Walter S. Gilliam, a child psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center.
It is a big problem, probably bigger in the early grades than most of us realized.