With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Keisha Bentley-Edwards is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, Human Development & Culture and Learning Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. She researches racial experiences of youth including the preschool to prison pipeline. 

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Can you explain what the preschool to prison pipeline is and whom it most impacts?

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Keisha Bentley-Edwards: The preschool to prison pipeline is a critique of different disciplinary processes. When we talk about these, we talk about the disproportionate use of things like suspensions, in school and out of school suspensions. Usually it impacts students who are African American, Latino, lower SES or students who have some type of emotional disability or cognitive disability. And with these, because so many school districts have police forces instead of what maybe our parents or grandparents, if they got in trouble at school, where it all stayed in house, for some of these infractions that you do in school could lead to a public record of criminality.  

Trib+Edu: I’ve heard of the school to prison pipeline, but why this inclusion of preschool?

Bentley-Edwards: With the preschool you’re getting more conversations that these actual disciplinary policies actually start to be revealed as early as preschool. So there were some people who started making the call almost 10 years ago saying, “Hey, we’re seeing these differences,” but last year particularly, the Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education had this report that showed that even in schools where you have in-state preschool programs, African-American children were very much overrepresented among those who had been suspended once. Black children comprised 18 percent of all preschoolers but 42 percent of those who had been suspended once and 48 percent of those with multiple suspensions. When you start looking at privately owned pre-K programs, those numbers are even more drastic.

Trib+Edu: Why would a school suspend a preschool age student?

Bentley-Edwards: That’s funny. That’s actually a question, when I talk to teachers I will say, “Why did you suspend a toddler?” Because it does sound absurd, but usually it’s for things that are often normative for what children do at age 2 and 3 and 4 years old, like biting or hitting, where oftentimes it’s an expression of frustration.

Depending on the training of the teachers and whether or not they have a behavioral specialist in the school to be able to decipher — is this normative behavior or is this exceptional behavior that may need additional care? Oftentimes some schools have harsh disciplinary policies. So the zero tolerance policy that you see in the K-12 system are also pulled down into the pre-K program.

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Trib+Edu: How do these suspensions impact students once they are in the K-12 public school system and further on in their life?

Bentley-Edwards: If you think about most children, and I’m thinking about toddlers who are 2 or 3 years old, and you tell them they’re going to start school, they are very excited about it. This is something that big kids do. And then their first experience in school is one of suspension and rejection, and somehow being seen as deficient. Instead of starting their K-12 in a higher level of preparedness, they’ve already had social rejection coming from the school, and they bring that in there.

Also, they have time away from school when they should be learning, which means that the whole purpose of these pre-K programs is to make sure that kids are prepared for kindergarten. So you have school absences as a result of these suspensions, you also have the sense of rejection that is occurring if there is bullying that’s occurring already that isn’t being addressed. So instead of coming into kindergarten with a positive outlook, you’ve lost some level of trust.

Trib+Edu: What about once they are in this K-12 system? Is there an age group that this trend most impacts?

Bentley-Edwards: The highest suspension rates are actually in the pre-K, and part of it is that you don’t have the same level of due process in the pre-K system as you do in the K-12. If you’re talking about the K-12, usually you’re talking about middle and high school. You start to see the trend in middle school then it accelerates in high school.

When you look, a lot of time, people say African Americans and Latinos, especially boys, are getting suspended because they get in trouble more, but if you actually look at the data, you find that you are getting more suspensions for African-American and Latino children for the same infraction. The African-American and Latino children are getting suspended more than their white counterparts. It’s not so much that their behavior is worse, but it’s the interpretation and how those behaviors are addressed by the school systems, that differ.

Trib+Edu: In your research, what have you found to be some of the causes of this trend?

Bentley-Edwards: A big part of it is that if you have preconceived notions of black and Latino misbehavior as a characteristic or as who they are compared to what they have done, oftentimes you see a harsher disciplinary tactic used to try to control and set an example. It’s less considerate of the actual developmental stages.

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So oftentimes, especially for African-American boys, they’ll be engaged with by teachers as if they’re speaking to another adult and not as if they’re speaking to a child. In adolescence, it’s completely normal to be a little bit rebellious. Most times when you look at the data, and this data came out of California, they found that for African-American and Latino boys, they were suspended more for talking back to teachers than anything else. You often think about suspensions and expulsions being the result of fighting or dangerous behavior, but they are actually getting suspended for things that would be considered subjective.

Trib+Edu: What are some possible remedies?

Bentley-Edwards: Some of it has to do with the training of school police as well as the assistant principals who are in charge of discipline at schools. A lot of times the teachers and the on-the-ground folks, they are doing the best that they can; they just don’t understand how their policies are affecting students differently. In the classroom, the teachers are seeing just the students in their class. They’re not really thinking about how what they’re doing is mimicking or not mimicking what’s going on throughout the campus.

So, really, looking at that data from a deeper perspective, and not just looking at suspensions but also looking at what led to a suspension, what led to an expulsion and what type of classroom management can be done. And what kind of resources can be provided to teachers and school police so that you can have either culturally relevant interventions, better training so that the teachers will address behavior in developmentally appropriate ways, rather than perceiving them as being socially deviant.

Trib+Edu: What’s the long-term effect of this trend on both actual school systems and the students, if this trend continues?

Bentley-Edwards: When you think about the schools, when you have repeated school suspensions, depending on their district the student can be referred out to an alternative school. You have school absence, where the students themselves are missing actual learning opportunities and other academic engagement activities.

But also it’s costing schools money. You have to pay for more school police. When the students themselves are getting sent to juvenile detention, the schools are not getting the state funds for that student’s presence in school. So it’s costing the schools money as well as their reputation. And it’s also costing the students because once you get engaged with the justice system, it’s very difficult to get out of it…

I think also for the parents, they need to really pay attention. Especially in Texas where we are a big sports state. Parents have no hesitation about intervening with coaches and with referees when they feel that their child is being treated unfairly on the field. I encourage parents to use that same enthusiasm in the school setting as well to make sure they’re looking out for the best interest of their child.

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