Hurrying down to class at a major Salt Lake high school years ago, one of us was in the company of two friends. When passing the vice principal, these two friends were stopped and questioned about why they were not in class, But our current law school peer, then just a naive high school student, was allowed to continue.
All three students were headed to the same place, for the same reason, and with a teacher’s permission.
The only difference among the three students was that the two who were stopped and questioned had brown skin. Now a law school student, our peer almost didn’t graduate because her faith and trust in the school, its administration, and the educational system were shaken.
This newspaper recently reported that close to one in five of Utah students are not completing high school, and the Utah Department of Education will soon release a guide on dropout prevention in Utah.
Utah needs to have a statewide conversation about our graduation rate, but the conversation must include the fact that overuse of school discipline is contributing to the problem.
And we need to acknowledge that the dropout rate is even worse for Utah’s Hispanic and black students, more than one in three of whom are failing to finish high school.
Not coincidentally, they are also three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
We know that teachers and administrators do not intend to create these disparities, and we know they care about students and safety. But we want everyone to be aware of the long-term consequences of school discipline.
Every time a student is disciplined, that student is more likely to fall behind in class, disengage, and eventually drop out of school. Researcher Robert Balfanz, of Johns Hopkins University, found that when students are suspended even once in the ninth grade, they are twice as likely to drop out of school.
Dropping out comes with consequences that extend beyond future earning potential. A recent report by the Utah Criminal Justice Center found that one out of three inmates in the Utah State Prison is a high school dropout.
The guide issued by the Department of Education is a good first step to redirecting this pipeline funneling our schoolchildren from school into prison. But Utah needs more.
The Los Angeles Unified School District recently banned the use of suspensions for "willful defiance" and is now using what experts say is the best way to address student misbehavior: positive behavioral interventions and supports.
Similar efforts in Colorado schools reduced suspension rates by 40 to 80 percent. Tom Boasberg, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, reported a 60 percent drop in expulsions since the district began changing its policies — changes that also decreased dropout rates by 50 percent.
We ask parents, friends and concerned citizens to ask school administrators and teachers to put an end to punishing minor infractions. We urge schools to take a close and hard look at when they are imposing discipline on students of color and for what types of offenses. When discipline is necessary, we ask that every effort be made to keep students in school.
We want Utah to be able to meet the challenges of the future by preparing all of its students for graduation, not the criminal justice system. We were lucky enough to make it to law school — but we want all students to have the chance to shine.
Trace Downey, Mary Milner, Maureen Minson and Christopher Pieper are students in the Public Policy Clinic at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.
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