This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Consider these events, each of which happened at the same high school in Utah during the 2013-14 school year.
• Two boys get into a fight because one boy made a homophobic slur directed to the other. The boy puts the other in a headlock. He then breaks free and punches the other three times.
• A boy takes several highlighter markers from a teacher's desk when the rest of the class was in the lab.
What should happen?
In the past 20 years, our communities have built a collection of education and public safety policies and practices meant to protect our children at school. These policies have the best intentions. Unfortunately, they are having the unintended consequence of pushing our schoolchildren out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system.
New research from UCLA shows that suspension rates are closely correlated with dropout and delinquency rates, and suspension has tremendous economic costs for the suspended students. The exclusion of students from school for disciplinary reasons is directly related to lower attendance rates and increased course failures, and it can set a student on a path of disengagement from school.
A number of recent studies and reports have examined these policies and their impact on students of color. Few of these studies have focused on the troubling and undeniable effects on American Indian students. American Indians occupy a unique place in our country's history. Past policies of assimilation removed a generation of American Indian children from their families. This community continues to rank at or near the bottom of nearly every social, health and economic indicator. These factors create a student population already extremely vulnerable to low graduation rates. These vulnerabilities are being compounded by the frequent use of school discipline and exposure to law enforcement.
In Utah, Native American students are expelled, referred to law enforcement and arrested at school at alarming rates. They are almost four times more likely than white students to receive a school disciplinary action and are the single most likely student population in Utah to be referred to law enforcement and arrested at school. This student population is three times more likely to receive this action than all other students of color and almost eight times more likely than white students. They are almost four times more likely than all other students of color to be arrested at school and more than six times more likely than white students.
The overuse of this discipline is playing out in the graduation and incarceration rates for these students. Although the graduation rate for Native Americans has increased from 55 percent in 2010 to 65 percent in 2015, the rate is still well below the 83 percent rate for Utah overall. In February, Native Americans accounted for 4.7 percent of the Utah State Prison population, while accounting for 1.5 percent of the population of the state, representing a rate three times higher than what would be expected based on population size.
Back to our scenarios. In the first scenario, the boys are white. They received an out-of-school suspension. In the second scenario, the boy is American Indian and is referred to law enforcement for theft.
This information should be of great concern to those who care about the continued vitality of Utah's education system and its ability to prepare all students to grow into contributing and productive members of our community. If we are to begin to reverse these alarming trends in dropout rates and disproportionality in disciplinary actions among American Indians, we must begin the conversation now.
Vanessa R. Walsh is a J.D. candidate in the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.