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.)
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