American Indian and Native-Alaskan students have been facing disproportionate punishments for years. These students represent less than 1 percent of the student population, yet they make up 2 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent of expulsions.
Even worse, however, is the fact that many Native students in Utah are also facing high arrest rates, pushing many of these students away from and out of school.
A report released by the University of Utah revealed that Native American students in Utah are almost 8 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement and 6 times more likely to be arrested than white students. In fact, during the 2011-2012 school year, 55 Native American students in Utah ranging from kindergartners to sixth graders were referred to police officers.
The reasons for these referrals and arrests are unknown, as this information is not collected in a standardized manner. However, in the case of one known arrest, the punishment did not seem to meet the crime. In 2014, two Native American boys from a middle school in the San Juan School District were in the teachers lounge, looking for a teacher. In the lounge was a refrigerator, inside which the boys found bottles of Dr. Pepper. They each took and drank a bottle, but were caught.
The boys were arrested on charges of theft.
These boys are not the only ones in the San Juan School District who have been referred to the police. The district referred more than 10 percent of Native American students to law enforcement. The amount of white students who were referred, however, was less than 2 percent. One high school in the district even referred almost a third of its American Indian students.
The high rate of Native student arrests in Utah is quite alarming, especially considering the fact that Native Americans, who only make up about 1.5% of the total population in Utah, account for just over 5 percent of Utah’s prison population. As a result of these numerous referrals and arrests, many Native students are dropping out of school. In 2014, 31 percent of Native American students in Utah dropped out of high school, compared to a 15 percent state average. By enforcing harsh disciplinary policies which disproportionately target minority students, these schools are creating what is known as a “school-to-prison pipeline,” where minority students are pushed out of school and into juvenile justice programs.
“A lot of these policies have the best intentions,” said Vanessa Walsh, a researcher at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law Public Policy Clinic. “We have to keep our schools safe. But it’s having consequences that I don’t think anyone anticipated.”
Walsh has met with state officials and representatives to get support for a legislative task force or policy changes.
“It’s hard to get policymakers to take this on and champion this,” she stated. “[But] I have to just keep knocking on their door, sending them an email every couple weeks.”
“Given these special challenges, and the history of what the federal government has done to American Indians, this population probably needs extra help in school — rather than being pushed out of school,” said Emily Chiang, the director of the Public Policy Clinic and an associate professor of law at the University of Utah. “If anything, we should be devoting more resources as a state to making sure these kids stay in school.”