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The more high school dropouts a state has, the more convicts in its prisons, according to a review from University of Utah law students.
And minority students or those whose first language isn't English are more likely to quit before graduating.
But the trend could reverse if schools rework their discipline policies, the students found.
"Our gradation rates are not stellar," said law professor Emily Chiang, who oversaw the project. "It shows that there is room for improvement, especially for our most vulnerable students."
In 2013, one in five Utah students left high school before graduating. But for students learning English as a second langage, the rate spiked to just over 50 percent.
The phenomenon is worse in the state's minority communities. Almost two in five American Indians dropped out. Latino and black students dropped out at a rate of about 30 percent.
The report links those students to the state's prison population, noting that one in three inmates at the Utah State Prison is a high school dropout.
In their research, the students considered federal public data that tracks school discipline by race, disability and other factors. They concluded that harsh disciplinary actions like expulsions or suspensions often exclude students and put them farther behind their peers, making them more likely to drop out after middle school.
To address the problem, student researchers suggest, state leaders should establish a task force that includes parents, school leaders, juvenile court judges, and lawmakers. They also suggested different discipline methods, including "positive interventions."
Among the recomendations: School administrators could tackle the issue by identifying students who are at risk of dropping out, assigning them advisers, training teachers, tailoring lessons to student strengths and making classes more interesting.
Chiang said she and a team of about five students hope to meet with legislators in coming months to create a task force.