A recent report out of the University of Utah has cast a spotlight on the disproportionate rates at which American Indian students are thrust into Utah’s school-to-prison pipeline.
Disparities in Discipline, released in May and based on 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, revealed American Indian students in Utah’s K-12 public schools are almost four times more likely to receive disciplinary actions compared to white students.
The disparity becomes wider with the more severe forms of discipline. When compared to white students, American Indians are 7.5 times more likely to be expelled, eight times more likely to be referred to law enforcement, and six times more likely to be arrested. Even when compared to non-white race groups, American Indian students get the harsher disciplines more. They are three times more likely to be referred to law enforcement and four times more likely to be arrested.
More alarming still are the 293 (7.3 percent) American Indian K-6 kids who received disciplinary actions, making them four times more likely to be disciplined than white students. Of those, 55 were referred to law enforcement, as opposed to zero whites in the same grade range, and four were arrested. Just as shocking, 30 percent of American Indian students with disabilities received disciplinary actions.
For Vanessa Walsh, a J.D. candidate enrolled at S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah and co-author of the report, the most shocking finding of this research are the rates at which American Indian students are referred to law enforcement and arrested at school. “Instead of using the less harsh in-school or out-of-school suspension, which I think are still harsh actions that are overused in this state, for whatever reason this population is not getting those. They are getting the referrals to law enforcement and school-related arrests,” she told ICTMN.
In the San Juan School District, nearly 50 percent of the student population is American Indian (mainly Navajo). The report found that 23.8 percent of American Indian students in this district received disciplinary actions, compared to 3.7 percent of white students. In April, Walsh and her colleagues organized a town hall-type meeting on the Navajo reservation. However, she does not believe community members felt comfortable openly sharing their specific concerns because “a lot of white school officials” were there.
But Walsh has heard stories directly from Navajo parents. “If a Navajo kid and an Anglo kid get into an argument or a fist fight, they almost always tell me that it’s the Navajo kid who gets the school action and the white kid gets the equivalent of a warning, not even a suspension. The feeling in that community is that the Navajo kids are targeted,” she said.
The school-to-prison pipeline refers to educational and law enforcement policies and practices that shove students onto what typically becomes a one-way path out of the educational system and into the juvenile or adult justice system. Though the report discusses the nationwide proliferation of zero-tolerance policies and school resource officers (SROs)—two key components of the pipeline—it does not pinpoint to what extent these policies and SROs contribute to the gap between American Indian students and other students in Utah. But the report notes that socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, make Indian students more vulnerable.
It may be easier to draw a correlation between the pipeline and the achievement gap, which the report does. School days missed due to suspensions, expulsions, and arrests often mean lower academic performance. They result in students disengaging from the educational system and ultimately dropping out. The report states that 31 percent of American Indian students dropped out of Utah high schools in 2014, a stark contrast to the 15 percent state average.
The report disturbed John Mejia, legal director at the ACLU of Utah. “I think that it’s clear that students of color in Utah and nationally have been subject to school discipline more than their white counterparts,” he said. “It was surprising how much that trend affected Indian students.” He added that the ACLU of Utah plans to reach out to the state’s six federally recognized tribes.
Nationally, 22 percent of American Indian students receive disciplinary action, compared to 14.1 percent of their white counterparts, according to the report. To address the issue, Arizona State University, Tempe hosted the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Indian Country Symposium and Town Hall Meeting in March, at which Walsh presented her data. Walsh also plans to conduct additional research to gauge how American Indian students are disciplined in schools across the nation.
Mejia urges students or the parents of students who have been treated unfairly to speak out to their school boards or commissioners through emails, letters, or at meetings. They can also send an email or mail a letter to the ACLU.
“When we think about how we advocate, a lot of times it is pushing policies. But sometimes it is advocating with peoples’ stories,” Mejia said. “So if we have powerful stories from the kids themselves or their parents, that helps us to understand the issue and have the public and policy makers understand the issue as well.”
At the end of March, Utah Governor Gary Herbert approved H.B. 33, which provides for establishing an American Indian-Alaskan Native Education Commission, to include state and tribal leaders, and an American Indian-Alaskan Native Public Education Liaison position along with creating a state plan to improve educational outcomes for Native students.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed three bills that benefit Utah's tribes into law during a special ceremony at the Utah Capitol attended by leaders of the Navajo Nation.
Walsh said this is a step in the right direction. “I am hoping now that this issue is getting attention in Utah that more money will be dedicated to it,” she said. “They [the future commission] can take on the disparity in discipline as well as the achievement gap. It’s connected.”