group of cheerful high school students portrait

The new academic year offers Utah schools a new chance to give all kids — regardless of race or ethnicity — an equal educational opportunity, fulfilling the promise of being our society’s “great equalizer.”

Now is the right time to act on a report released in June by Voices for Utah Children and the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, titled “Misbehavior or Misdemeanor?”

This report revisits “Fingerpaints to Fingerprints,” also by S.J. Quinney students in 2014, which pointed out serious and persistent racial disparities in how Utah public schools mete out discipline among their students of various racial and ethnic groups. Students with disabilities and gender-non-conforming students face similar disparate discipline.

Essentially, the 2014 report confirmed that Utah schools followed dismal national trends: students of color are much more likely to be disciplined than their white peers for the same misconduct.

There was no evidence that kids of color engage in more misconduct or more serious misconduct than their white peers. There was ample evidence, however, that these children are the targets of harsher and more frequent discipline.

Too much discipline leads to too many kids dropping out of school. Not finishing high school is highly correlated with spending time behind bars. That’s what we call the “school-to-prison pipeline,” that terrible phenomenon in which children are pushed out of class and into the juvenile or criminal justice system.

Three years later, “Misbehavior or Misdemeanor?” has more bad news. Overall, incidences of school discipline are down. However, any celebration is tempered by persisting racial disparities … and in some case, those gaps are widening.

For example, the 2011-2012 data analyzed in “Fingerpaints to Fingerprints” revealed that Latino/Hispanic students were 1.3 times more likely than white students to be expelled.

The 2013-2014 data analyzed in “Misbehavior or Misdemeanor?” showed that Latino/Hispanic students are 2.3 times more likely than their white peers to be expelled.

During the 2011-2012 school year, American Indian students were 6.2 times more likely than white classmates to be arrested at school.

During the 2013-2014 school year, that ratio increased to 8.8 times more likely.

Less need for discipline, less school push-out, is a good thing. It is good for everyone. So why aren’t we sharing the progress equally among all our students?

This lack-of-progress report about racial disparities in school discipline may be a signal that we have picked the low-hanging fruit in our school-to-prison pipeline work.

We’ve chipped away at “zero tolerance” policies. We’ve started to roll back the over-criminalization of childhood behavior by addressing school resource officer training. We’ve become more patient, less reactive, increasingly understanding.

But implicit racial bias remains, and this most prickly fruit seems to be still out of our reach.

This bias is the result of our culture and the nature of human psychology. Its presence does not mean educators and administrators are bad. It means they are still interpreting the conduct of kids of color as inherently more dangerous, more deserving of punishment due to this “biased filter.” Where a misbehaving white student is “struggling” or “figuring things out,” her Latino or black peers are “aggressive” or “troublemakers.”

What these reports teach is that in Utah we aren’t seeing the same promise and potential in our students of color as we see in our white students — and persistent gaps in high school graduation and dropout rates show us that, sadly, our kids are taking the message to heart.

As we move further into the 2016-2017 school year, we ask school and district staffs to please look at the data for their own schools and to pursue policy changes and training concerning implicit bias, restorative justice, trauma-informed care and cultural competency — for teachers, administrators, counselors and school resource officers. Such changes are not “above and beyond.” Rather, they go to the very heart of what our public schools strive to do: give all Utah children the opportunity to fulfill their true potential.

Kathy Abarca is the executive director of Racially Just Utah. Anna Thomas is the strategic communications manager for ACLU of Utah.