Mitigating the Criminalization of Black Children through Federal Relief

By Tiffany Ferrette and Whitney Bunts

Black History Month is a time to reflect on the joy, accomplishments, and experiences of Black Americans. During this month and others, it’s equally important to address continued systemic racism. From birth, Black children are subjected to the hate, racism, discrimination, and white supremacy pervading this nation. They are criminalized, brutalized, and dehumanized by the very systems meant to protect them—including child care and early education, schools, mental health systems, and law enforcement. We must protect our Black communities and end this cycle of inhumane treatment that disproportionately harms children and young adults.

Pushout in the early years

Even in the early years, Black children and their families begin experiencing systemic racism and inequitable punishment. Black children’s behavior is scrutinized and punished more than their peers, even typical child-like behavior. While Black children comprise 19 percent of the preschool population, they represent 47 percent of preschool suspensions. This punishment even begins in the earliest years, with 42 percent of infant/toddler care centers in a state reporting at least one expulsion in the past year. An estimated 300,000+ children may be expelled annually.

A suspension, expulsion, or “pushout” from a program can follow a child well beyond early childhood. It can show up through informal networks of school administrators and teachers being “warned” about a child or a behavioral file or report that transfers from preschool into the K-12 system. Early pushout can lead to damaging effects on young children and their families such as a family’s ability to work and children’s perception of self and learning.

Realities in K-12 settings

In kindergarten, harsh school punishment can shift into criminalization. Black children in the K-12 system are more likely to be disciplined than their peers for defiance or other common behaviors. And Black students are overrepresented in referrals to law enforcement, in-school and out-of-school suspensions, corporal punishment, and expulsions at every age level, even though white students are referred to the principal’s office more. These disciplinary actions have life-altering results. Black students who are suspended or expelled are 3x more likely to have contact with the criminal legal system. This is not by chance. It is by design. The criminalization of Black children will continue to happen in the absence of safeguards, programs, and legislation to protect them.

Where do we go from here?

We need transformational change that addresses white supremacy and systemic racism. This means:

  • Changing the narrative about Black children. From birth, society attaches labels and stereotypes to Black children’s identities. By the time they enter child care they are already seen as less innocent, in less need for protection, and more threatening than white peers. Society must change that narrative at an individual level by acknowledging and recognizing implicit bias and combatting that through education and trainings. Additionally, we must address narrative change at a macro level through conversation, policy, and the media. Black children are not criminals. They are just kids who exhibit the same developmentally appropriate behaviors as their peers.
  • End harsh and exclusionary disciplinary practices in child care and early education and K-12 schools. State leaders are starting to understand that harsh punishment can replicate racist systems in early care and education and are taking steps to ban these practices in the early years. For example, an Oregon bill signed in July 2021 directs the state to study early childhood suspension and expulsion. The bill also bars many programs  from suspending or expelling any child.
  • End the presence of law enforcement in K-12 schools. For decades, communities nationwide have been advocating to remove law enforcement in schools. In 2020, this movement got real traction, with multiple school districts considering police-free schools. However, only Oakland did so by eliminating police in schools and reallocating that funding to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. More communities should follow Oakland, because police presence only further criminalizes Black children.
  • Expand investments in child care, early education, and K-12 systems. Criminalization means more than being in contact with the carceral system. It also shows up in the scarcity of resources and supports in the community. However, the House-passed Build Back Better bill includes funding for schools, states, and localities, and the expansion of slots for child care. Quality improvements to address how Black children experience care and learning are important to mitigating criminalization. Programs and schools can be improved by providing technical assistance to educators, offering professional development and training, and alleviating workforce shortages through retention and completion grants.

Black child lives matter, always! They aren’t the stereotypes society places on them, and they’re more than the numbers describing them. They deserve a better nation—one that recognizes their greatness and brilliance and embraces them with hope and guidance. However, without intentional efforts to address and eliminate the practices of criminalization—including resources to support the efforts—Black children will continue to experience hate, racism, discrimination, and white supremacy. That is not the Black history we want to celebrate.