Two American Indian boys at a middle school in Utah entered the faculty lounge looking for a teacher. The boys didn’t find anyone, but there were a couple of Dr. Peppers unattended to. The two boys were caught drinking the sodas, and according to a school disciplinary report, referred to law enforcement for “theft.”
Fifty-five American Indian students in Utah elementary schools were referred to law enforcement in 2011, compared to zero of their white counterparts, according to a new report from the University of Utah Law School's Public Policy Clinic. Native students were found to be almost four times more likely to receive a disciplinary action.
The report's authors say it’s the first to look at the way American Indian students are punished in public schools. They used data from the U.S. Department of Education to determine that American Indian students in Utah are disproportionately punished. According to the report, American Indians are the smallest student demographic in Utah, but are most frequently expelled, referred to law enforcements, and arrested for school related incidents.
And it’s not just Utah. American Indian students are reportedly about three times more likely to be expelled and referred to law enforcement than white students nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Education has released data about American public schools since 1968, but according to the report, American Indian students were not analyzed until now (using the most recent data from 2011).
Lower graduation rates and more severe punishments than their white counterparts push American Indians into the school-to-prison pipeline at an alarming rate, the report asserts. Utah’s overall graduation rate is 83 percent, but for American Indian students it’s only 65 percent. According to the report, American Indian students are the single most likely group to be arrested at school and eight times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than their white counterparts. In Utah, American Indians account for just over 5 percent of the prison population and are about 1.5% of the total population in Utah, according to Utah Department of Corrections and the latest census.
The problems facing American Indians in anglo American schools do not exist in a vacuum. Starting in the late 19th century, the report notes that the federal government implemented a set of stringent assimilation policies: Indian American children were removed from their homes and forced to attend schools off the reservations, and eventually to non-Indian home and boarding schools. Students were denied the right to speak their native languages, practice their religions, and wear their native clothes. Students caught “speaking Indian,” were beaten, according to PBS. The report says at least one-third of all American Indian children were take from their families and placed in foster care, adoptive homes or educational institutions as recently as the 1970s.
The University of Utah report joins another analysis recently published by the African American Policy Reform in looking at the over-disciplining of historically marginalized groups. That report found that black girls were six times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.
Kimberle Crenshaw, professor of law at UCLA and founder of the African American Policy Reform, sees a connection between the over-disciplining of black girls and violence inflicted upon black women by the state. For Crenshaw, it boils down to one thing: stereotyping. "Girls and black women are seen as are more aggressive and their emotions aren't read accurately. Hurt and pain and even excitement are misrepresented on black faces," she says.
“The tendency is to see [violence against black women] as not part of a broader pattern of discrimination," says Crenshaw. "It's seen as an individual circumstance. Or it's just one of those fluke cases." Her goal, she says, is to lift out enough of these cases to show there are structural and institutional patterns across the crime and punishment industry.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.