Study examines ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline in Utah’

Posted at 3:15 PM, Oct 10, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY -- If you are suspended or expelled in elementary school, could that determine whether or not you graduate from high school?

Researchers at the University of Utah say yes, and they said they’ve got the data to prove it.

For the past year Emily Chiang, a University of Utah associate professor of law, and a team of students examined the link between discipline in Utah elementary schools and dropout rates.

“Utah is disciplining its most vulnerable children, and we're starting to do it at a really young age--that the school discipline is starting as early as elementary school, where you are talking about kids between 5 and 12, ” Chiang said.

Chiang said when students ages 8 through 12 are taken out of the classroom and are suspended, expelled, or arrested, they’re less likely to finish school and more likely to wind up in prison.

“Because most of the studies show that when you discipline students and you don’t address the underlying issues, all you are doing really is pushing them out of school," she said. "They feel alienated. They fall behind in their classes. And they become disengaged, and it gives them the opportunity to interact with other, you know, misbehaving students because they’re not in school."

Their study, "From Fingerpaint to Fingerprints: The School-to-Prison Pipeline in Utah," draws on 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Their findings indicate:

  • Disabled students are twice as likely to be disciplined as other students.
  • A total of 1,230 elementary students in were disciplined by being expelled, arrested or referred to law enforcement.
  • American Indian students are 3.5 times more likely to be disciplined than any other race.
  • Male students are disciplined twice as often as female students.
  • As a result, nearly one in five students in Utah drop out.

And students who drop out face a variety of obstacles as a result.

“We know that the consequences of dropping out of high school are so severe,” Chiang said. “They’re not just economic. You’re definitely going to make less money, you're less likely to be employed, you're more likely to be on public assistance, and you're more likely to be arrested as an adult unfortunately."

Researchers said administrators should move away from harsh school discipline and more toward practices where teachers work with students to encourage better behavior.

Vanessa Walsh is a law student at the U of U who worked with Chiang on the research, and she spoke about some of those alternatives.

“I think especially with the younger kids, an intervention, or a counseling type of approach instead of immediate expulsion or suspension would go a long way,” she said.

It's an approach that Canyons School District is currently implementing, and so far, it's working. They've seen a decrease in the number of discipline hearings.

Researchers said they realize teachers are dealing with a lot in the classroom and may not have the best resources available to them.

Walsh said: “We need to give schools resources and teachers resources to have different conversations, which I think it's very important that the legislature get involved, because they have the funds, and they can also look at, you know, the much bigger problem. Because elementary schools is just a very small part of a very big problem."

To read the full study, click here.