Every year, thousands of children are suspended or expelled from preschool in the United States. Yes, three- and four-year olds are removed from the classroom at this early age. The findings from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ recent Civil Rights Data Collection highlight the outcomes of school discipline policies and practices throughout the country. It is considerably difficult to ignore the implications of these facts on access and attainment of a quality education. In particular, exclusionary discipline policies in schools across the United States disproportionately affect boys and young men of color. Policy makers and educators are now coming together at all levels to address the school-to-prison pipeline. This calls for a collaborative and comprehensive solution. It is a shared responsibility to shine the spotlight on parts of our population that have long been underserved – for America’s future and our global competitiveness depend on it.
Let’s talk about facts. Our young men of color, including Hispanic, African American, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and American Indian and Alaskan Native males, are an at-risk population. Collectively, they are among the fastest-growing segments of our country’s population, representing nearly half of all males under age 18 throughout the country. Studies show that this particular subgroup of the general population is, on average, a year to a year–and-a-half behind girls in reading and writing abilities, and most boys in grades 4-8 are twice more likely than girls to be held back a grade. Data also show that boys are suspended or expelled at higher rates than girls (see figure below). The gender gap is even more prevalent in special education: boys are seven times more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; in some school districts, they are up to ten times more likely to be diagnosed with serious emotional and behavioral disorders. Further, there are added challenges, because more boys and young men of color live in high-poverty neighborhoods, and/or with only one parent than their white counterparts  . It is important that all youth in these circumstances, including boys and young men of color, receive the academic, emotional, and social support they critically need. President Barack Obama may be the first person of color to become president in our nation’s history – but the disparities facing these young men remain alive and well.
In light of demographic projections, it is important to recognize that our nation’s future is inextricably linked to ensuring the success of all groups of young people, including these young men. For example, it is expected that Latino males ages 10-24 will grow by 3.7 million between 2013 and 2040 while the white male population in that age category will actually decline by 2.6 million. Recognizing America’s changing landscape has never been more necessary. Policies that strengthen communities are critical to ensuring that we keep all young people in school rather than charting a path to the juvenile justice system by suspending them or expelling them for minor offenses. An educated workforce is key to America’s global competitiveness, and as a nation, we cannot stand idle while other countries out-educate and out-compete us. Addressing the school to prison pipeline also benefits our economy. Studies show that exclusionary discipline policies have direct financial implications for a school district. In California, the Fresno Unified School District saw 32,180 school days missed due to suspensions, resulting in more than a million dollars lost in funding based on students’ average daily attendance. Just like in this district, there are millions of dollars being lost due to student suspensions all across the nation.
Of course, we cannot begin to address the issue if we aren’t aware of it.
This past summer, I worked as a policy intern at the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (Initiative) at the U.S. Department of Education. The Initiative works with stakeholders in the private and public sectors to advance a strategic policy and outreach agenda to help tackle critical education challenges facing the Hispanic community, including discipline policies that disproportionately impact young men of color, including Hispanics. The Obama Administration has made equity and opportunity for all Americans a priority. In particular, the inequities that continue to exist in many pockets across the nation for many, including our young boys and men of color, have galvanized action and a movement.
Earlier this year, President Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative (MBK) which aims to address opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential. Through MBK, the private and philanthropic sectors have also come together to invest in the best practices addressing key issues that help all young people, including young boys and men of color, succeed. As part of this effort, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, along with organizations across the country are working to reduce counterproductive policies like zero-tolerance that can lead to disproportionate school suspensions and expulsions. Most recently, the President highlighted the Council of Great City Schools’ commitment wherein sixty of the nation’s largest urban school districts have created an eleven-point plan that stretches from early childhood to graduation, including programs to reduce suspensions and expulsions. In that same vein, the private sector has announced multi-million dollar investments to create mentoring programs and additional programs to address disparities in school climate. 
In that same spirit, it is up to all of us – educators, students, parents, non-profits, business, community leaders, government and faith-based leaders – to work together and invest in America’s education. How can one invest? Invest your time by becoming a mentor in your community. Research shows that the presence of a mentor helps significantly improve the lives of a young person. There are various opportunities to become a mentor. You can join the President’s call for mentors here. In the words of my school’s founder Benjamin Franklin, keep in mind that “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
Jesus Perez is an International Relations major and the junior class president at the University of Pennsylvania. As an intern for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics during the Summer of 2014, he worked to enhance and advance the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.