U of U researcher: American Indian students face brunt of inequality regarding discipline in schools

Posted at 10:25 PM, May 22, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah schools are pushing American Indian students out the door and into trouble, according to a new study from the University of Utah,

Researchers from the Public Policy Clinic at the S.J. Quinney Law School researched the disciplinary actions American Indian students face around the state.  Based on 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Education, they found great disparities in discipline when compared to white students.

“American Indian students in Utah are just feeling the brunt of this inequality. The differences between the school disciplinary actions for these students and other white students, it’s just alarming; it’s shocking,” Law Student Vanessa Walsh said.

Walsh headed up the research, considering a variety of disciplinary actions she concluded led more American Indian students to fall into the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“If you look at referrals to law enforcement and school related arrests, which are the most harshest forms of punishment, the numbers are literally off the charts,” explained Walsh.

The study found that 3.2 percent of all American Indian students were referred to police by their schools.  In 2011, there were roughly 7,800 American Indian students in the state.

While that is the smallest demographic of students in Utah, the numbers suggest they have the largest percentage of kids who are referred to police or arrested.  Walsh found American Indian students were 3 times more likely to receive a referral to police than all other students of color and 8 times more likely than white students.

“American Indians in the state make up 1.3 percent of the population,” Walsh said. “I think because this group is such a small part of our demographic, it hasn’t gotten much focus.”

When examining the data by school districts, Murray School District was found to have the greatest disparity, with nearly half of its American Indian population disciplined.

“It’s something that I’m concerned about if there is a big disparity," said Steven Hirase, Superintendent of Murray School District.

While nearly half the district's American Indian students were disciplined, according to the study, the Murray district only has approximately 83 American Indian students. In contrast, the San Juan School District has more than 1,000 American Indian students, about 20 percent of whom were disciplined.

“We’re going to look to see reasons why the students, the reasons why they were disciplined," Hirase said. "See if there is a pattern that way, see if there is a pattern in our policies, procedures or practices that we need to make adjustments for.”

According to Walsh, the state and local districts should begin to reevaluate their practices immediately to change course.

“I just know that it’s happening, and we need to shed light on it," Walsh said. "We need to examine why it’s happening and figure out how we’re going to fix it.”