I think the healthy conversation is to say, 'What's causing this? Are these kids more likely to come from socioeconomically poorer families and maybe they need extra support to succeed in school? Or maybe it's something else entirely.' —Emily Chiang, U. associate professor

SALT LAKE CITY — The excessive use of suspensions, expulsions and other disciplinary policies for nonthreatening infractions is putting Utah students on a trajectory toward academic shortfall, high school incompletion, unlawful behavior and eventual incarceration, according to a report by University of Utah researchers.

This "school-to-prison pipeline" is noticeably prevalent among minority students and students with disabilities, who account for a disproportionately large percentage of disciplinary actions, the report states. But overly harsh school punishment occurs throughout the state, and it can increase any child's chances of dropping out, according to U. associate professor Emily Chiang of the S.J. Quinney College of Law.

"Once you drop out of high school, you're that much more likely to have a lower income," said Chiang, who directed the research for the report. "(Dropping out) is associated with a greater likelihood of ending up on public assistance of some sort, and it's definitely associated with a greater increase in the chance you'll be arrested."

Some school districts, however, are years into the process of overhauling disciplinary policies to give students multiple layers of support by emphasizing early intervention rather than disciplinary reaction to bad behavior.

The Canyons School District is one of the districts on the path toward a better solution. Since the implementation of multitiered systems of support began in 2009, office referrals and disciplinary hearings have become less frequent, according to district officials.

"Does this stuff work?" Chiang said. "The answer is: It does."

Disproportionate discipline

The report, "From Fingerpaint to Fingerprints," gives an independent analysis of information from the Civil Rights Data Collection for schools in Utah. Using the data, University of Utah researchers calculated an expected discipline rate for groups of students based on their enrollment. For example, if Hispanics formed 10 percent of a student population, they were expected to represent 10 percent of the students who were disciplined.

Researchers, however, found a much less equitable distribution:

American Indian students in Utah are disciplined six times more than expected based on enrollment, far more than any other racial group.

Black students are disciplined more than three times as often as expected.

Hispanic students are discipline one-and-a-half times more than expected, according to the report.

Students with disabilities are twice as likely to be disciplined with multiple suspensions as students without disabilities. In some cases, disabled children were more than three times as likely to be expelled, the report states.

The report argues that overuse of school discipline contributes to Utah's dropout rate of one in five students. In 2013, one-third of disabled students and 52 percent of students learning English as a second language did not graduate.

The report argues further that many of those who drop out contribute to Utah's prison population, 70 percent of which did not graduate from high school.

Utah is not the only state showing trends of disparity, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection. Nationally, black students are three times as likely to be expelled or suspended as their white peers, and more than 50 percent of students referred to law enforcement are black or Hispanic, according to a CRDC report.

Subtle causes

Chiang believes it's unlikely Utah students are being "singled out" solely on the basis of race. But she acknowledges the difficulty in identifying the root causes of disparity in school discipline for minorities.

"I think what's happening is much more subtle and warrants a dialogue amongst educators and policymakers and parents and teachers," Chiang said. "I think the healthy conversation is to say, 'What's causing this? Are these kids more likely to come from socioeconomically poorer families and maybe they need extra support to succeed in school? Or maybe it's something else entirely.'"

Richard Gomez, educational equity coordinator at the Utah State Office of Education, says many minority children struggle with steady attendance, which often leads to disciplinary action. Another contributor could be a lack of learning opportunities at home due to cultural or socioeconomic conditions.

"Those children need enriched learning experiences and teachers who are qualified to provide them," Gomez said. "(Teachers) need the training on how to recognize (how) culture, home environment, learning style and teaching style all go into making a classroom learning environment more inclusive for all students."

Chiang says the picture is more defined for children whose disabilities provide a clear link to misbehavior. But the discipline disparity exists for those children despite their protection under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which precludes them from being punished for misbehavior caused by their disability.

"It's sort of like punishing a kid in a wheelchair for not being able to walk," Chiang said. "The idea behind the statute is we shouldn't be suspending these children. We should be providing them with extra supports, a more nurturing environment that recognizes (they) have a disability."

Multitiered solutions

Prior to 2009, the Canyons School District enforced a mandatory out-of-school sentence of 45, 90 or 180 days for suspended students, depending on the number and severity of offenses. Overall, discipline policies were "pretty punitive in nature," according to Robert Dowdle, assistant superintendent for school performance at Canyons School District.

"They were just heavier sanctions than what we felt comfortable with," Dowdle said. "We want kids to be in school as much as possible."

Since then, the district's disciplinary policy has evolved into a multitiered system of support program consisting of three layers of tailored guidance for students. The implementation process began in elementary schools and has gradually come to include all schools in the district, according to Tamra Baker, the district's director of student support services.

Tier 1 establishes baseline rules for all students. Tier 2 offers an additional layer of support for students whose misbehavior is "clearly defined" by office referrals, Baker said. Tier 3 involves district-level intervention for students engaged in activity that is unlawful, compromises school safety or otherwise can't be addressed by lower levels of support.

While suspension often plays a role in tier 3, administrators hold a hearing with the student and the parents early on in the process to establish a path back to the classroom.

"We see them as hearings of hope for the student, that there is a pathway out of the choices they have made," Baker said. "And out of that, we can decide what the next step is for the student and the right steps to make sure that the school and the students in the school are safe as well."

For disabled students, administrators hold a hearing with the child's parents to determine if the misbehavior is a manifestation of the disability, Baker said.

Five years into the program, school administrators are seeing fewer office referrals as students progress through elementary school and into middle school.

"We're finding success with it. We're happy with it," Dowdle said.

Growing diversity

Similar solutions are emerging in the Granite School District, where minority students account for 42 percent of the school population and are set to become the majority within a decade, according to district spokesman Ben Horsley.

But with increasing diversity and socioeconomic challenges comes greater difficulty in addressing uneven discipline. The U. report illustrates such challenges at Granite and other districts along the Wasatch Front, especially for black, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students.

"We know what the report's about and we feel it has some valid points in it," Horsley said. "This is an issue that we've been grappling with for quite some time."

Utah was recognized Nov. 20 in a report by the Data Quality Campaign as one of the top 10 states that effectively use data to help students be successful. Schools in the Granite School District are using data to address discipline problems before they arise.

As an example, some schools have identified student tardiness as being "severely detrimental" to academic success and school discipline, Horsley said. But recent intervention efforts to curb tardiness have improved punctuality and school discipline, he said.

While the district as a whole uses the multitiered systems of support program as a foundation for discipline, each school requires flexibility to address the unique challenges it faces, according to Doug Larson, director of policy and legal services for the district.

"Schools try different things, and different things work at different schools," Larson said.

While the solutions may be unique to each school, solving the problem statewide will require holistic support for students and collaboration among educators, parents and lawmakers, according to Chiang.

"One thing we want to be really clear about is it's not the teacher's fault," Chiang said. "This is why we issued the report, because we know that it's not a problem that any one teacher or administrator can fix. This is a problem that requires a community-wide conversation."

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Gomez, who oversees the state's monitoring program for civil rights compliance in schools, said more resources are needed to help teachers address a range of challenges, from better cultural awareness to helping students become proficient at using technology in their coursework.

"We just need to do a better job of making sure that all teachers are provided with the tools and resources to address the needs of the students who are most highly impacted by all of the factors that lead to graduation," Gomez said.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

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