What Does the Recent NC Report on School Discipline and Crime Say about Young Children?

When most people think about school discipline and crime – like in-school and out-of-school suspensions or assaults on school staff – they think about high schoolers. But the NC Department of Public Instruction’s recent Consolidated Data Report finds that young children were both reported perpetrators of crime and violence in 2018-19 and faced an array of disciplinary actions that removed them from their classrooms. In-school and short- and long-term out-of-school suspensions contribute to chronic absence, which impacts children’s learning and future success in school.

Though cross-tab data by grade level and race aren’t available in the report, the overall race/ethnicity data shared demonstrate that there are disproportionate rates of suspensions and expulsions among Black, American Indian, and multiracial students in North Carolina, and that rates for Black students are the most disproportionate. There are also disproportionate rates among students with disabilities. Data and research has found that implicit bias plays a large role in creating these disproportionate discipline outcomes.

Discipline Data – Suspensions, Expulsions and Corporal Punishment

Data on in-school suspensions are reported by grade level. In 2018-19, there were 2,532 in-school suspensions among kindergartners, 3,631 among first graders, 4,649 among second graders, and 6,183 among third graders. The numbers of in-school suspensions overall have been climbing in recent years.

For reporting on short term suspensions, Pre-K and K students are combined as one category. Short term suspensions for them rose slightly for them in 2018-19 after falling for the past three years. There were between 5,000 and 6,000 pre-K and K short-term suspensions in 2018-19. In good news, short-term suspensions among first, second and third graders fell in 2018-19. There were around 5,000-6,000 among first graders, close to 7,500 among second graders, and around 9,000 among third graders.

For reporting on long-term suspensions, PreK-5th grade students are combined as one category. There were 52 long-term suspensions among PreK-5th graders in 2018-19, about average from among the last five years. The lowest number in recent history was 48 in 2016-17 and the highest was 67 in 2015-16.

There were no expulsions reported for PreK-5th grade students in any of the last five years. In 2013-14, data submitted by NC school districts to the federal Department of Education Office of Civil Rights reported 1.8 expulsions per 10,000 elementary-school students that year.

All uses of corporal punishment have been required to be reported since 2010-11. In 2018-2019, for the first year, zero school districts reported the use of corporal punishment. This is down from two districts reporting 60 uses of corporal punishment in 2017-18, and 75 uses in 2016-17. There is no evidence that corporal punishment improves behavior.

A Note on Preschool Suspensions and Expulsions:

There is evidence both nationally and in North Carolina that preschool students are suspended and expelled, and that students of color are suspended and expelled disproportionately starting as young as preschool. NC’s public preschool programs – like Head Start and NC PreK – have put guidance in place around suspension and expulsion. Head Start prohibits it. NC PreK and the Preschool Exceptional Children program have clarified that suspension and expulsion are last resorts and have put protocols in place that teachers and administrators must move through before a child can be suspended or expelled.

Work has begun in North Carolina to align these policies and collect better data on preschool suspensions and expulsions – starting with agreeing on shared definitions of what those terms mean in a preschool or child care setting. NCECF intends to do more work in this area in 2021.

Crime and Violence

For reporting on crime in schools, PreK-5th grade students are combined as one category. Fourteen percent of the reported crimes in 2018-19 were at the PK-5 level.

The reports finds that reports at the PK-5 level accounted for:

  • Nearly half of the total reported assaults on school personnel (49%, 730 instances)
  • Nearly one-quarter of the reported possessions of weapons (22%, 451 instances)
  • Twelve percent of the reported possessions of firearms or powerful explosives (15 instances)
  • Two percent of the reported possessions of controlled substances or alcohol (105 instances)
  • Twenty-nine additional incidents comprising sexual assault or offense (14), assault resulting in serious injury (7), assault involving the use of a weapon (3), bomb threat (3), and burning of a school building (2)

It is likely that most of these crimes were reported on fourth and fifth graders, but the report does not break out the data by elementary grade level to know for sure.

What Can We Do About It?

The Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Action Framework shares expectations that NC holds of child and family systems and actions that we can take as a state to improve outcomes for young children and their families. Many of the actions in the Framework would help reduce the use of suspensions and expulsions and reports of crime and violence in the early grades, such as actions that address:

Family engagement and leadership and equity:

  • Require Linked Strategies Across Programs to Engage and Learn from Families
  • Support Schools and Child Care Programs to Engage Deeply with Families
  • Be Inclusive in Planning and Designing Services
  • Set Equity Goals

Supporting children’s social-emotional health and resilience:

  • Screen Children and Families for Social Determinants of Health and Connect them to Appropriate Services
  • Address Barriers in Health Insurance Coverage of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Services to Ensure Adequate Benefits
  • Prepare Teachers to Build Specific Student Skills Needed for Success
  • Infuse Social-Emotional Health into Child-Serving Systems

Creating positive school climates that are culturally competent:

  • Recruit and Retain Educators and School Leaders of Color
  • Provide Professional Development for Teachers on Cultural Competency and Working with Families
  • Require Specific Educator and Administrator Professional Development for Building Positive School Climates
  • Hire Sufficient Support Staff