Most boys are marvelous mischief-makers. In between their frequent shenanigans and monkeyshines is the desire to satisfy a curiosity to explore, to make friends and to be included in the learning process. But sometimes a wide-eyed, rambunctious spirit can get them into trouble. The U.S. Department of Education revealed this spring that African American children as young as four years old are three times as likely than their White counterparts to get suspended or expelled from preschool and Kindergarten for violating classroom rules.

The controversy may have started with the 1994 “Gun Free Schools” act that was put into place to make the school day safe by mandating the expulsion of students who bring a firearm to school. Today, state legislators nationwide have enacted “zero tolerance” policies which go beyond federal firearm guidelines. These laws have led to punishment for infractions that were not meant to cause harm, but that fell within the interpretation of a threat. An unintended consequence of zero tolerance is that the school policies that are intended to provide support, end up promoting a social practice that opts out certain students and, by design, leaves them behind.

As the expelled students are cast as deviants, this labeling ultimately impacts their psychological, affective and social development. The tragic school shootings—from Columbine to Sandy Hook—have resulted in government entities acting to calm fears of youth violence and to introduce crackdowns on campus security and student behavior. Therefore, the schools themselves often become a focus of criticism for not recognizing “bad kids” earlier.

Administrators began to send a message that zero tolerance—often used to address behavior that can be classified as “willful deifiance”—would become a top priority.

In 1998 at Tyrone Elementary School in Georgia, the principal there suspended and reported to the police two children who had made a list of people that they wanted to see dead. Two of the names were “Barney” the purple dinosaur and the Spice Girls. A further example of sometimes overly-zealous disciplinary policies occurred in February 2001 when a first-grader at an Arkansas school was suspended for three days for threatening another child by pointing a chicken nugget and uttering “pow, pow, pow.”

Absurd instances like these naturally draw media attention, but thousands of similar cases happen daily with anonymity. The Justice Department Institute (JPI) in 2002 found that American students have a one in two million chance of being killed at school, and those odds have not changed in recent years. Despite the safe schools, zero tolerance policies continue to be implemented and broadened to the youngest African American tykes and toddlers.

“The fact that the school-to-prison pipeline appears to start as early as four years old, before Kindgergarten, should horrify us,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in response to the March report issued by the Education Department’s civil rights arm. “It’s stunning. About 7,500 preschoolers are being suspended and expelled every year. We must do better, and we must do better now.”

Black children represent about 18 percent of children enrolled in American preschool programs, but almost half of the students were suspended more than once. Six percent of the nation’s school districts with preschools reported suspending at least one Black toddler; this was the first time the Department of Education reported data on preschool discipline.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder responded to the report by pointing out persistent “preconceptions” that people have of minority children and suggested teachers be given cultural sensitivity training.

“Effective school discipline will always be a necessity,” Holder said. “Schools must be safe…but a routine school discipline infraction should land a student at the principal’s office at worst, not a police precinct.”

In 2000, 17 states had enacted laws concerning mandatory expulsions for drugs and alcohol possession; 12 states expelled students for disobedience (often referred to as “willful defiance”); 10 states expelled students for assaults against other students; eight states expelled students for vandalism; and six states expelled students for verbal threats. All of these directives stem loosely from the Gun Free Schools Act that mandates that all states that receive federal funds must expel students for no less than one year, who are found with a weapon (gun, grenade, rocket, bomb, missile or mine).

The definition of “weapon” is now so broad that it has been known to include key chains, butter knives, nail clippers…even drinking straws. “Drugs” now include prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen, aspirin, cough drops, and breath mints like “Certs.” Because the concept of zero tolerance means enacting harsh punishment regardless of the degree of severity for the offense, some schools do not take the time to determine the circumstances of the event on a case-by-case basis. Many school districts do not take into consideration the age of the child. Therefore, a first-grader whose mother packs a plastic butter knife into his/her lunch box is just as likely to be expelled as a 10th grader packing a switchblade.

The Palmdale and Lancaster school districts include the willful defiance directive within their rules and procedures regarding student discipline. One Palmdale campus, Yucca Elementary School, is typical of the majority of schools which state clearly that students have the “right of due process” (a right to tell their side of the story) and that they will be fully informed of the charges leveled against them. The school’s guideline of discipline states: “Restriction of the rights of students must and can only be done with good cause.” Willful defiance is often determined when the student does not do what he/she is instructed to do, such as showing up for detention. It also states: “Failure to serve [this] detention may result in suspension from school for willful defiance of authority.”

In 2007, an incident at Pete Knight High School in Palmdale far exceeded the guidelines of routine discipline. A 300-pound security guard broke the wrist of a 15-year-old girl whom he told to pick up some spilled cake in the cafeteria. Not believing the girl was moving quickly enough, the guard allegedly slammed the girl onto a table and uttered “…hold still, you nappy head.” The guard was suspended with pay, but three students who captured the incident on video were detained by other guards who demanded the cell phone’s video. They refused, resulting in a confrontation that saw the three students arrested and charged with assault.

During the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) 2010-11 school year, 26 percent of those suspended for violating the “willful defiance” standard were Black children who comprise nine percent of the student population. The term willful defiance for the past 20 years has become a subjective “catch-all” determination for such behavior as refusing to remove a cap in class, not turning off a cell phone when asked, “provocative” dress including hairstyles and/or refusing to wear a school uniform, as well as a so-called aggressive or demonstrative behavior unfavored by a specific instructor or school administrator.

The LAUSD voted in May 2013 to abandon willful defiance in correcting its young people, opting to return to more practical measures of discipline. Superintendent John Deasy told the board that students will be suspended if they regularly demonstrate behavior that threatens the welfare of others, but keeping students out of school for failing to bring a pen and paper or other acts considered “defiant” could ultimately push them away from school and into the arms of the law.

“We want to be part of graduating, not incarcerating students,” Deasy said.

In 2007, the Center for Educational Performance and Information revealed that 1,528 students were expelled in Michigan for the 2005-2006 school year. The reasons ranged from violence, dangerous weapons, banned substances, prohibited behavior and biased incidents varying from hairstyles to “inappropriate” apparel. The study delved further and discovered that “violence” included name calling as “verbal assault.” A second study conducted in Connecticut found that, in Kindergarten alone, the rate of suspensions and expulsions almost doubled over a two-year period, (from 463 in the 2006-2007 school year to 901 reported for the 2008-2009 school year).

The increased expulsion of African American toddlers for fighting, defiance and temper tantrums has brought the issue of classroom management into the forefront. The zero tolerance policy now imposes expulsions or suspensions for a wide range of other conduct that previously would have been dealt with via after-school detention, withdrawal of privileges, counseling, mediation and other methods outside of corporal punishment, suspension or expulsion, or notification of law enforcement.

Yet another study, this one conducted in 2005 by the Applied Research Center, looked at 12 school districts across the U.S. and found that Black children, as well as Latino and Native Indian students, were suspended in numbers disproportionate to their White peers in every district surveyed. In San Francisco, Black students were suspended or expelled more than three times their proportion of the general student population (56 percent suspensions/expulsions compared to 18 percent enrollment). The study revealed that Black boys were disciplined more often and more severely than any other minority group.

The Children’s Defense Fund in 2010 reported that among students who were classified as “overly aggressive,” African Americans were more likely to be disciplined than any other group. This trend, the report revealed, tended to vary based on the racial background of the teacher. Researchers found that once Black students and White students are both placed with same-race teachers—and are similar on the other covariates—Black students’ classroom behavior is rated more favorably than is White student’s behavior.

The Indiana Education Policy Center in 2009 found that, contrary to a prevailing assumption that African American boys are just getting “what they deserve” when they are disciplined, their research show that these boys do not “act out” in the classroom anymore than White children.

“Although discriminant analysis suggests that disproportionate rates of office referral and suspension for boys are due to increased rates of misbehavior, no support was found for the hypothesis that African American students act out more than other students,” the Indiana report stated. “Rather, African American students appear to be referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons. When coupled with extensive and highly consistent prior data, these results argue that disproportionate representation of African Americans in office referrals, suspension and expulsion is evidence of a pervasive and systematic bias that may well be inherent in the use of exclusionary discipline.”

The zero tolerance policy today has been gradually transformed into a method of “sending a message” that certain behaviors will not be tolerated by punishing all offenses severely. In effect, the popularity of zero tolerance among school districts may have less to do with their actual results than the image they portray of schools taking resolute measures to prevent school violence. In 2005, the JPI found that, although there was a 40 percent decline in school-associated violent deaths between 2001 and 2003, the number of American parents who were fearful of their child’s school rose about 50 percent during the same period. Researchers at JPI discovered that, although media perceptions often depict Black parents as often “uninvolved” or “detached” from their child’s daily lesson plan, they were traditionally among respondents to say the safety of the school is a top priority. This was particularly true among parents in urban regions who have to dispatch their kids to campus through gang- and drug-laden neighborhoods.

Inner-city schools traditionally have a difficult time recruiting qualified teachers, and students living in poverty are overrepresented among expelled students. Sometimes teachers reared in suburban regions are overwhelmed by the lack of preparation for the school day demonstrated by some urban children (chronic tardiness, not submitting homework assignments, classroom disruption) and, within the “Hip Hop” or “Rap” culture so popular among pre-teen and “tween” Black boys, an appearance of aggression and/or “swag” can often be misconstrued by young White teachers as disrespect of authority and general malevolence.

“Much of this discrepancy is the result of teachers having a ‘short fuse,’” said Pedro Garcia, a professor of education at USC and former superintendent of schools in West Covina and in Nashville, Tenn. “Many minority students have trouble connecting with teachers who don’t share their background. Part of that is that we don’t have enough minorities in education. There is research that indicates that when kids have role models and they connect with people that look like them, their behavior is improved and their performance is better.”

When a poor child is expelled from school, he or she is likely to have no recourse. Most lawyers will not take the case because the language of zero tolerance is so broad that it covers nearly any disciplinary action taken by the school. A student expelled from a school district has little luck in getting admitted into a neighboring district. Private schools, some charter schools and those that accept vouchers are usually far too expensive for working-class parents in the inner city. and just two percent are Black males. In 2008, Black students comprised 17 percent of students in American public schools, but represented 35.6 percent of kids who were subjected to corporal punishment, 37.4 percent of all students suspended, and 37.9 percent of those students expelled.

The “achievement gap” is closely related to the “digital divide.” By the fourth grade, 85 percent of African American children cannot read or do mathematics at grade level. The same statistic is found four terms later in middle school. By the 12th grade, 84 percent of Black students who have not dropped out cannot read at grade level and 94 percent cannot complete a math equation.

Inclusion in “special education” curriculums find Black children half as likely as White students to be placed in a gifted/talented class. Instead, Black children are 1 1/2 times as likely as a White child to be placed in a class with students labeled “emotionally disturbed,” while another unfortunate group of Black kids are twice as likely as a White child to be placed in a class for students with special needs.

Debate continues regarding the affective child-rearing skills of single parents. In 2004, about half of all U.S. children were living with both their biological parents by the time they entered high school, according to the Social Science Research Network (SSRN). With the increase, they reported, of divorce rates throughout the nation, single-parent households are a major segment of all households with children. Accordingly, it has become a point of intense interest to educators and parents in how a single-parent environment affects children’s learning. Typically, single parents have to manage far more tasks than the mothers or fathers in two-parent households, simply because of practical limitations on the division of labor. At least until children are old enough to take on household chores, single parents handle all of the housekeeping responsibilities, as well as wage earning and guardianship. As a result, it is not infrequent for single parents to have less time or energy to encourage their child’s study habits when it is time for reading together, overseeing homework or planning educational, entertaining and fitness activities and outings for the family.

The SSRN report addressed education and behavior and found that, aside from the direct influence of household structure on academic achievement and learning, a single-parent home environment may influence a child’s behavioral performance in school, which can indirectly affect learning and interest in school. According to Adoption.com, when single parents—spanning race and ethnicity—are working full time and therefore have less available time for their children, the situation may lead to either behavioral issues and/or lower academic achievement.