NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – A policy to suspend 3- and 4-year-old students for behavioral infractions at a Norfolk preschool has ended following a 10 On Your Side investigation.

Willoughby Early Childhood Center Principal Laundrell Gates sent a letter informing parents of the policy on Dec. 6. In the letter, Gates wrote that he would immediately begin issuing out of school suspensions to preschool-aged students for a variety of behavioral infractions, ranging from severe tantrums and excessively running around the classroom, to repeatedly kicking, hitting, and biting staff or peers.

“Unfortunately, I must begin to issue consequences due to repeated unsafe behaviors in order to maintain a positive working and learning environment,” Gates wrote.

The Dec. 6 letter on suspension sent by Principal Laundrell Gates

Gates issued a note to staff directing them to not try to explain the suspension policy to parents or warn them about their children’s behavior.

He set up a meeting with parents and guardians to discuss the policy directly. That meeting was scheduled to take place at the school on Tuesday; however, it was canceled Monday night after 10 On Your Side’s investigative team sent a copy of the Dec. 6 letter to Norfolk Public Schools and began asking questions about it.

Our investigative team discovered that the policy was not in line with NPS’ approach to student discipline and guidelines issued by the Virginia Department of Education and will not be used at Willoughby Early Childhood Center.

“The letter that was sent out wasn’t in line with policy and how we approach things,” said Norfolk School Board Chairman Carlos Clanton said, adding that the issue is being handled by school administration.

“The policies in effect at Willoughby Early Childhood Center are the same policies that are in effect throughout the school division. WECC staff will continue to employ policies, procedures, and practices in accordance with existing school board policies supported by PBIS and the NPS Student Code of Conduct,” NPS spokesperson Michelle Washington said.

10 On Your Side shared a copy of Gates’ letter with NPS on Monday afternoon. Hours later, NPS Executive Director of Elementary Schools Dr. Doreatha White sent parents another letter addressing the suspension policy. Her letter said, in part:

The letter that was recently distributed to the families of Willoughby Early Childhood Center does not represent Norfolk Public Schools’ approach to student discipline. Norfolk Public Schools’ Student Code of Conduct applies to all students within the school division, including our students enrolled in preschool programs. However, suspension is absolutely the last resort as a disciplinary consequence for preschool students. Such an action would be taken only following a series of appropriate interventions and supports for preschool students and their parents/guardians.

Dr. Doreatha White, NPS Executive Director of Elementary Schools
NPS letter sent to parents on Dec. 12

Clanton said parents can expect another letter to be issued on Tuesday clarifying existing questions and detailing next steps forward; however, a NPS spokesperson said they were not aware of plans to send an additional letter as of Wednesday night.

10 On Your Side’s investigative team also spoke with Thomas Calhoun, the president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers. He said the choice for Gates’ to send the suspension letter is highly unusual and may be indicative of a larger issue within the school.

“The only people punished in this situation that the principal is going to create would be the parents or whoever has to stay home,” Calhoun said.

“NPS turning around and walking straight away from that one, that tells you something,” Calhoun added. “No, that ain’t our problem. When NPS does that, you’re on your own. When PS does that, it tells you something. Trust me.”

10 On Your Side’s investigative team also reviewed the guidelines for the prevention of suspension and expulsion of young children that were developed by the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Department of Social Services in 2018.

The guidance includes the following directive to educators:

In very few cases, if any, after all other measures have been taken to prevent and address challenging behaviors, limiting early care and education services, suspending an individual child may be deemed necessary to ensure the safety of other children and adults.

VDOE guidelines

The guidance also included a statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education Policy that said suspension and expulsion of young children “should be prevented, severely limited, and eventually eliminated.

10 On Your Side sent a copy of Gates’ letter to VDOE representatives and requested an interview with an expert to provide context on the impacts of suspending young children. VDOE representatives declined an on-camera interview, but released the following statement:

Research indicates that high-quality early learning is a critical first step in ensuring that all children begin kindergarten with an equal opportunity to learn. Suspensions and expulsions of young children deprive them of enriching learning experiences and have a negative impact that can extend into grade school and beyond.

The Virginia Department of Education provides guidance regarding policies and best practices in implementing developmentally appropriate experiences for children in early car and education programs that can prevent suspension and expulsion. Recommended practices promote collaboration between family and professions and focus on effective classroom management and social-emotional skill development to support young children’s healthy development.

These policies and practices are based on the most significant research for eliminating suspensions and expulsions in early childhood settings and are for teachers and administrators supporting children in early care and education programs.

VDOE is contacting Norfolk Public Schools to provide whatever technical support may be needed to align school and division practices with state guidance.

Charles Pyle, VDOE

10 On Your Side has also learned that Ann Lhospital will be reaching out to Willoughby Early Childhood Center to share information about Virginia’s Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Program. Lhospital is the supervisor of the program and a senior scientist at the University of Virginia.