Several years ago, when Zakiya Sankara-Jabar’s 3-year-old son was repeatedly suspended from preschool, she felt like a bad parent. “I started to think that there was something inherently wrong with my son,” says Sankara-Jabar, who is now a parent advocate for race equity in schools. Her son was eventually expelled from his preschool, forcing Sankara-Jabar to drop out of college. While she now knows that their experience was likely due to implicit biases, it’s little consolation. In a phone interview with the author, Sankara-Jabar recalled the ordeal as “a lot of toxic stress and trauma, not just for the children but even for the parents.”
In the wake of pioneering research by Yale University’s Walter Gilliam, the federal government started collecting data on public preschool suspension and expulsion in 2011. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, 47 percent of the preschoolers who received suspensions or expulsions in the 2013-14 school year were African American, even though they made up only 19 percent of preschool enrollment. In total, nearly 7,000 3- and 4-year-olds were suspended or expelled from public preschools during the same school year.