Home > Uncategorized > Decriminalizing Drugs While Suspending Pre-Schoolers: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Decriminalizing Drugs While Suspending Pre-Schoolers: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Two seemingly unrelated articles got my attention in the past couple of days… and they illustrate the schizophrenic times we are living through. Tina Rosenberg’s essay“Decriminalizing Drugs: When Treatment Replaces Prison”, was one of the most heartening and reasonable articles I’ve read on this issue over the past several years. Describing the heroin and opiod epidemic that is gripping our country, especially in New England and Appalachia, Rosenberg notes that since white people are falling prey to addictions there is a change in perspective in our political thinking about it: more and more people are recognizing that addiction is a disease and not a moral failure. When we define “addiction” as a moral failure we treat it criminally instead of medically, and when heroin addiction was most prevalent in black communities we did just that. The result?

A few weeks ago, The Times reported on how the new demographics of heroin — nearly 90 percent of new users in the last decade are white — is softening America’s drug policies. Another factor is the new (and extremely belated) awareness among American officials of the toxicity of mass incarceration, with a quarter of American prisoners locked up for drug offenses.   While African-Americans are 12 percent of the country’s drug users, they are 59 percent of people in state prisons on drug offenses; reducing race bias in the criminal justice system means ending the war on drugs.   Meanwhile, 20 states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana — what happened to viewing it as a gateway drug?

When one suffers from a disease like cancer or a heart condition, they receive empathy and support from their friends and families and our insurance plans provide the best treatment possible. When one suffers from a disease like alcohol or drug addiction, they are often scorned by friends and neighbors and their families are made to feel ashamed… and until recently they were incarcerated for extended periods of time. In her article Rosenberg contrasts our country’s “War on Drugs” with Portugal’s decision to decriminalize drugs and finds that by all statistical measures Portugal’s approach is far more effective. As a result, more and more of our political leaders are at long last realizing that treating a disease is far more effective than locking up sick people.

But while we are beginning to understand the benefits of abandoning the “Three Strikes” mentality in treating addicts and recognizing the skewed impact that policy had on blacks, our recent trend to impose increasingly harsh disciplinary codes on preschoolers is having a similarly skewed impact on black children and boys. As reported by Melinda Anderson in Atlantic on-line, “…toddlers are racking up punishments that leave many parents and child experts bewildered.” 

After citing statistics that underscore the number of suspensions among public school students, Anderson offers someone-popping data on pre-school suspensions:

But for some more astounding than these discipline statistics were the thousands of the nation’s youngest learners—nearly 8,000 preschoolers—suspended from school in the same year, often for relatively minor disruptions and misbehaviors. For researchers and educators immersed in this work, why preschoolers are put out of school and the entrenched racial disparity seems most closely tied to reasons such as teacher bias and children living in poverty whose hitting, biting, and pinching is frequently labeled misconduct rather than developmental delays.

Black children accounted for 18 percent of preschool enrollment but almost half (48 percent) of the children suspended more than once; in contrast, white children were 43 percent of preschoolers, but only 26 percent were subjected to repeated suspensions. Likewise, boys comprised 54 percent of children in preschool programs, yet represented the vast majority of pre-K students suspended either once or multiple times.

So… we are at along last realizing that locking up addicts is counter-productive while instituting disciplinary policies that punish children for developmental delays. As the title of this post asks: What’s Wrong With This Picture?


  1. Elyssa
    December 11, 2015 at 11:56 am

    I’m glad you highlighted the fact that decriminalization of drugs and alternatives to incarceration did not take root until it became a problem for white people. I fear that disparities in pre-school suspensions will take much longer to change with wealthy parents sending their kids to expensive preschools, while parents with lesser means will be forced to use the universal Pre-K programs in their school zone.

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