Tunette Powell travels across the country counseling families and mentoring youth. An award-winning motivational speaker and author, her professional work in the education field ranges from training nonprofit leaders to consulting for colleges and universities. But none of Powell’s career-related skills could prepare her for the frustration and helplessness of seeing her two sons suspended from preschool, which she pegged to overly harsh and racially biased discipline. In a July 2014 Washington Post opinion piece that gained national attention, Powell relates how her boys—ages 3 and 4—were suspended from their Omaha preschool program eight times total in one year. Once published, the essay resonated with readers nationwide. “So many parents reached out [to me] … a lot of black mothers” who shared her experience with excessive suspensions, said Powell. “We live in a time when we just say, ‘Suspend them, get rid of them.’”
A glance at news headlines confirms that Powell and her sons are not an anomaly. From a 3-year-old suspended for too many toileting mishaps to a 4-year-old booted out of school for kicking off his shoes and crying, toddlers are racking up punishments that leave many parents and child experts bewildered. Overall the rise in school suspensions and disproportionate impact on youth of color has triggered a flurry of interest from activists and high-ranking government officials, and for good reason: A February 2015 report from UCLA's Civil Rights Project examined out-of-school suspension data for every school district in the country and found that nearly 3.5 million children—about six out of every 100 public school students—were suspended at least once during the 2011-12 school year, with close to half of those (1.55 million) suspended multiple times.