On June 12, 2020, the Denver Public School board unanimously voted to end its contract with the Denver Police. This is an important first step in the process to end Denver’s school-to-prison pipeline. In her TEDxMileHigh talk, early childhood education expert Dr. Rosemarie Allen discusses how the pipeline starts earlier than most think. Learn more from Dr. Allen about the preschool-to-prison pipeline and how adult self-awareness can be part of the solution. 

The Preschool-To-Prison Pipeline

As a child,  Dr. Rosemarie Allen was suspended from school at least seven times per year. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. “Preschool children are suspended three times more than kindergarten through 12th grade combined,” says Dr. Allen.

The alarming rate of young child suspensions is the start of a long, impossible education track for many students and the preschool-to-prison pipeline.

“In Illinois, 40 percent of childcare centers reported suspending infants and toddlers. Those are children who have not yet turned three years old.”

Not only does this seem like an impossible statistic, but the odds are also disproportionately stacked against students of color. “African American children are only 19 percent of the preschool population, but comprise nearly half of all suspensions,” says Dr. Allen. 

“Children who are suspended are ten times more likely to enter the juvenile justice system,” says Dr. Allen. “They’re more likely to drop out of school, have low achievement, and be suspended again.” Thus, the preschool-to-prison pipeline.

Punished for Being Children

Early in school, teachers punished Dr. Allen for “destructive” behavior like digging a hole in the playground to see if she could really dig to China. Another time the administration labeled her a “demon” because she pulled dolls apart to see how the body parts all fit together. “Now these are all childlike behaviors, albeit from a very curious child, but childlike nonetheless,” says Dr. Allen.

So, why punish children for being children? What are the implications of punishments for bad behavior vs. encouragement of good behavior? Dr. Allen believes the solution to high suspension rates in young children lies within adults.

Adult Behavior Creates the Problem

A few years ago, the mother of a young boy, Tayvon, frequently received calls about her son’s behavior. The school asked Dr. Allen to help and observe him in class. “I was struck by how eager Tayvon was to please his teachers,” says Allen. 

When the class sat for carpet time, Tayvon was the first to reach his spot and sit criss-cross applesauce with his hands in his lap. He waited and strained for his teacher to acknowledge him sitting perfectly. When she didn’t, he became frustrated, uncrossed his legs, and sprawled out on the carpet. “Tayvon, you are not sitting like a learner, leave the circle and go sit at a table,” said his teacher.  

This is the problem. “When we pay more attention to negative behaviors, we will get negative behaviors,” says Dr. Allen

In her talk, Allen quotes Tom Herner, former president for the National Association of Special Educators. “When children don’t know how to read, we teach, when they don’t know how to write, we teach, when they don’t know how to ride a bike, we teach. But, when children don’t know how to behave, do we teach, or do we punish?”

The Solution

Fix Adult Behavior

According to Dr. Allen, the solution to difficult child behavior lies in our own behavior as adults. “When we’re aware of ourselves, then we come to know what our hot buttons are, what our behavior is, and how we respond to the behavior of others,” says Dr. Allen. 

“Suspensions are adult behavior,” she says, and they are a result of adults who are unaware of how their behavior (i.e., Tayvon’s teacher not acknowledging his positive behavior but punishing his negative behavior). affects the behavior of children. We need to teach children how to behave, rather than tell them what to do and punish them when they do it wrong.

“Imagine a world where we intentionally taught children pro-social skills, gave them many opportunities to practice, and positively reinforced them every time they used those skills,” says Dr. Allen. 

“When we use these strategies, we can disrupt and dismantle the preschool-to-prison pipeline, we can eradicate preschool suspensions, and we can mitigate the negative impacts a school suspension has on a child and on our society.” – Dr. Rosemarie Allen

Remove Resource Officers from Schools

Another solution to the preschool-to-prison pipeline has been in the news lately. Paired with discussions of restorative justice, removing resource officers from schools is an alternative to the preschool-to-prison pipeline and school detentions.

While police officers were introduced originally to curb school violence and encourage the safety of students, their involvement in the everyday lives of child discipline facilitates the preschool-to-prison pipeline. According to U.S. News, “School resource officers have become more involved in the basic discipline of children, stepping in where teachers previously would have handled low-level misbehavior.”

Just as in Dr. Allen’s preschool-to-prison model, Black students are disproportionately punished when officers are in schools. In the 2011-2012 school year, Black children made up 31 percent of all U.S. in-school arrests, despite only making up 16 percent of enrolled children. 

Denver Public School board member Tay Anderson was a part of the initial proposal to end contracts with Denver Police Department (DPD). In a Facebook post, he said, “Last night we voted to end the contract with the Denver Police, but this was never about an individual officer. It was about dismantling a system that has held children of color down for far too long.”

A Step in a New Direction

Denver’s decision to end their contract with the DPD is a major step towards the end of the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Like Dr. Allen explained in her talk, we need to move towards a system that helps children understand why disruptive behavior is bad and how to fix it rather than immediately reverting to discipline. Preschool is too young for suspensions, and no child should ever feel like their life is headed for failure before it even really begins.