One day in 2014, in Utah’s San Juan School District, two middle school boys went looking for their teacher. The district serves the largest number of Native American students in the state and both boys identified as such. In pursuit of their teacher, they checked out the teachers’ lounge, and, in that room full of adult secrets, they began to poke around. In the fridge they found a couple bottles of Dr. Pepper. They grabbed them and drank them.
Unsurprisingly, they were caught.
But what might have been dismissed as a youthful infraction instead took a serious turn: both boys were referred to law enforcement for theft.
Their story, which comes from a report released by the University of Utah Friday, is not unusual. The study, conducted by researchers at the university’s S.J. Quinney College of Law Public Policy Clinic, found that Native American students in Utah are disciplined far more harshly than their peers. They’re almost eight times more likely to be referred to law enforcement and six times more likely to be arrested than white students, far out of proportion to the size of the population.
The result is a phenomenon known in education circles as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” whereby zero tolerance disciplinary policies that disproportionately target minority students funnel them out of school and into juvenile justice programs.
“A lot of these policies have the best intentions,” Vanessa Walsh, the report’s primary author, said. “We have to keep our schools safe. But it's having consequences that I don't think anyone anticipated.”
The next stop for many students is often the adult prison system, which can have devastating impacts on already-vulnerable youth and their communities, she said. (In the case of the soda-drinking boys, the school district doesn’t track what happens once students are handed to police, but they could have been charged with a crime, arrested, fined or forced to appear in court.)The U.S. education system has an especially tortured relationship with Native American students. Until just a few decades ago, many American Indian students left or were taken from their families to be educated in boarding schools, as part of the government’s forced assimilation policy. The schools had a reputation for strict and often abusive disciplinary policies that are still remembered vividly by those who attended.
In recent years, states and the federal government have tried to do better, including incorporating tribal languages and culture into public schools and relinquishing more control to tribes. Still, changes to school discipline have been slow to follow. Nationwide, Native American students receive the second highest rate of out-of-school suspension of any ethnic group and are disproportionately expelled.
According to Walsh’s report, the harshest discipline for Utah’s American Indian students today takes place in rural areas and in the schools closest to the state’s eight reservations. For example, in the San Juan School District, where the two boys were caught stealing soda, more than 10 percent of American Indian students have been referred to law enforcement, compared with less than 2 percent of white students. One high school in the district referred almost a third of its American Indian students.
Other Western states face similar disparities and are grappling with how to respond. In 2007, a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union forced one South Dakota school district to reform its policies to protect Native American students. In Colorado, American Indian students are nearly three times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than their white peers, according to a report released last summer. In Montana, Native American students are almost five times as likely to be expelled as white students.
As for Utah, Walsh has reported her findings to the ACLU and met with state officials and representatives to discuss the issue. So far, she said, she hasn’t been able 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 said. But she doesn’t intend to let it rest. “I have to just keep knocking on their door, sending them an email every couple weeks.”
Kate Schimel is an editorial intern at High Country News.