SALT LAKE CITY — Native American students in Utah are four times more likely to receive disciplinary action than white students, though school disciplinary actions in the state have declined 30 percent over the last two years, according to a new report.
During the 2013-2014 school year, 10.3 percent of Native American students received some form of disciplinary action, while 5.6 percent of all other students of color and 2.6 percent of white students received an action.
Though the total number of disciplinary actions in Utah has decreased significantly, there is still a disparity among minorities, according to a recent study by the University of Utah College of Law and Voices for Utah Children.
The study is the third of its kind looking at the state’s school-to-prison pipeline, a national trend that funnels children out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. While discipline has declined across the state, it has increased in some cases for students of color.
“The first and second report looked at one set of data during one year: the 2011-2012 school year,” said Vanessa Walsh, U. researcher and co-author of the study. “It was hard to tell then because one year isn’t a trend, so my intent when I started this was to ask, ‘Are we getting better or worse? Are we staying the same? What really are the trends?’”
“I was pleasantly surprised that the total number of disciplinary actions went down. … I think the alarming part for me was that we are only reducing the number of disciplinary actions for our white students … but we’re not making progress for those students of color.”
In the 2013-2014 school year, almost nine percent of black students, 8.5 percent of Native American students and approximately five percent of Pacific Islander and Hispanic students received a suspension while two percent of white students received the same.
Native American students were 6.2 times more likely than white classmates to be arrested at school in the 2011–2012 school year. That disparity increased to 8.8 times more likely in the 2013–2014 school year.
The reasons for this disparity are many and varied and may include socioeconomic issues, trauma, abuse or addiction. But Walsh notes that whatever the cause, this disparity is also seen in the juvenile and adult justice system.
“I think all the stars are aligned to make some positive policy changes that are going to help all students,” Walsh said. “What’s going to work for white students isn’t necessarily going to work for Latino students in West Valley, and that situation isn’t going to look the same for our Native American students in San Juan County.”
Walsh hopes the recently-implemented Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which takes into account individual risks and treatment needs, will address this disparity and diagnose specific issues creating the divide.
She also believes much of the decrease in disciplinary action has resulted, in part, by shying away from a “zero tolerance” policy in schools.
A disciplinary action can often be a traumatizing experience for a young child or teenager, Walsh said, recounting an experience her own son had when he was called into the principal’s office for bringing a toy pocketknife keychain to school one day.
“I had completely forgotten about it but, 10 years later, my son could recall it in such great detail,” Walsh said. “That made such an impression on him. Nothing happened — really it was just a 30 minute conversation in the principal’s office — but I thought, ‘All these numbers in front of me, each of them represents a kid and each kid has gone through this, and for some kids it turned out in a very, very different way.’”
“I think sometimes we forget what happens after those (disciplinary) actions are taken and the impact it can have. … Your immediate problem is taken care of but, for the kid, it can last for a long time.”
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