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Between 2012 and 2014, Utah public schools issued 8,635 fewer disciplinary actions against students, according to a report released Monday by Voices for Utah Children and the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law.
The downward trend meant roughly 30 percent fewer suspensions, expulsions, law enforcement referrals and in-school arrests compared to the 2011-2012 school year.
"It's nothing short of a good thing that the total number of actions is down," said researcher Vanessa Walsh, an S.J. Quinney College graduate. "It shows that Utah has done a lot of work in the last 18 months, 24 months, to address the issue."
But while the total number of disciplinary actions dropped, racial and ethnic disparities in how those actions were meted out to Utah's public school students worsened.
More than 10 percent of American Indian students were disciplined during the 2013-2014 school year, compared with 5.6 percent of other children of color and 2.6 percent of white students.
Fewer than 0.5 percent of white students were referred to law enforcement agencies by schools in 2014, compared with 1.5 percent of American Indian students and 1.2 percent of black students.
Hispanic students were more than twice as likely than their white peers to be expelled in 2014, according to the report, despite comparable expulsion rates for the two demographic groups in 2012.
"It is getting better," Walsh said. "But it's also getting worse."
Monday's report, titled "Misbehavior or Misdemeanor," is the third in a series of studies that began in October 2014 with the publication of "From Fingerpaint to Fingerprints."
The reports highlight the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline" in Utah, which sees children pushed into the juvenile- and criminal-justice system as either the direct or indirect result of academic and campus misbehavior.
"Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline," the report states. "As research has consistently shown, children enter the school-to-prison pipeline after behavioral problems in the school result in suspensions, expulsions, or alternative education program placements."
Walsh said the issue of racial disparity is multifaceted, affected by factors such as poverty and at-home trauma, as well as implicit and institutional biases, corresponding with demographic minority groups.
But she also said school operations, such as the use of campus law enforcement officers and zero-tolerance safety policies, can magnify what would otherwise be minor violations of school rules.
She gave the example of her son, who in sixth grade was punished for having a small pocketknife key chain on his backpack. At schools with a campus resource officer or hard-line administrators, she said, the punishment could include expulsion or an arrest.
"Zero tolerance says it's a weapon," Walsh said. "Some school disciplinary actions are now getting criminalized, and it's putting kids in the juvenile-justice system."
The report states that school discipline policies are "facially neutral," but implemented in a way that is "decidedly" discriminatory.
Lincoln Nehring, the report's co-author and CEO of Voices for Utah Children, said that progress has been made in disciplinary reforms, but the changes have largely ignored racial and ethnic discrimination.
"They've been designed merely, or exclusively, to drive down the overall rate of discipline," he said. "They haven't been designed in a way to help children who are most impacted by the system."
Nehring said he's optimistic about juvenile-justice reforms that were approved by state lawmakers this year. The new law emphasizes home-based programs and counseling in lieu of juvenile detention, and removes criminal penalties for academic infractions such as truancy.
Nehring said the reforms provide an opportunity to address the school-to-prison pipeline and discrimination within juvenile justice.
"As we're implementing legislation like that, changing policies, we can be cognizant of the disparities," he said.
In a prepared statement, state Superintendent Sydnee Dickson emphasized that disciplinary data reflect individual students who likely need additional support for academic success.
Dickson said the Utah Board of Education is working with lawmakers and members of the Utah Juvenile Justice Working Group to overhaul the state's law enforcement and disciplinary systems.
"With equity and excellence as driving [state school] board imperatives," she said, "we are committed to working with local school boards to change the outcomes and statistics for these students."