October 15th, 2010 5:33 pm | by BETH SLOVIC News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Schools

Learning While Latino: 5-Year-Old Student Gets Suspended Five Days for "Assault"


A 5-year-old Latino student in kindergarten at Buckman Elementary School recently became another statistic in the thorny debate over the disproportionate rate of expulsions and suspensions among minority students in Portland Public Schools.

On Sept. 21, a kindergarten teacher at Buckman, where nearly 80 percent of students are white, accused the boy of assault, menacing, repeated incidences of battery and insubordination. So what did the boy do?

According to the note written in English to the boy's mother, Carolina Garcia, the boy had committed the following acts. He "kicked and spit" at the teacher when she tried to have him sit in his chair. "He tried to hide in the hallway," the disciplinary record says. "When [the teacher] brought him back he went to the rug and hit a student on the arm." During bingo, "he kept hitting others." And during recess outside, he "kicked another child on the head." (A second note in Spanish summarized the events for the mother, who does not speak English, but offered few details.)

Brian Anderson, Buckman's principal, declined to elaborate on the events, saying student-confidentiality rules prevent him from doing so. "But I will tell you that this particular situation was much more serious than pushing," he wrote in an email. "I followed the PPS guidelines to the letter and our main goal is to help this child succeed and assure safety for students and staff."

The student, who speaks Spanish, told his mother he pushed his teacher because he had to go to the bathroom and the teacher either didn't understand him or wouldn't let him leave the room. "He's only 5," Garcia tells WW in Spanish. "The teacher didn't understand what he wanted and five days seems like a lot." She adds: "I do understand it's not good what he did."

People can disagree about the severity of the student's actions and the appropriateness of the school district's initial response, given its other options. The PPS teacher's contract actually calls for expulsion in the event a student assaults a teacher. And kicking another student in the head should be considered unacceptable.

The bigger question is the policy itself. Does sending a student home for five days accomplish anything? Mark McKechnie, executive director of Portland's Juvenile Rights Project, says it's unclear what a student learns about his behavior when school officials simply send him home. "I think the research shows pretty clearly suspension is not an effective form of discipline," McKechnie says. "It's even less so for a 5-year-old."

Last year, PPS's zero-tolerance policies toward simulated weapons got attention after Duniway Elementary School officials suspended an 8-year-old boy for one day for bringing a 4-inch plastic toy gun to class. In response to that incident, PPS committed to reviewing its weapons policy. That boy was white.

In the case of the Latino boy at Buckman, PPS responded by moving the boy to a new school where 60 percent of the students are Latino. Garcia says her son—who turned 5 in July—is happier at the new school.

For background on "suspended education", check out the Southern Poverty Law Center's recent report on the topic.
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