Study examines ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline in Utah’

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SALT LAKE CITY -- If you are suspended or expelled in elementary school, could that determine whether or not you graduate from high school?

Researchers at the University of Utah say yes, and they said they’ve got the data to prove it.

For the past year Emily Chiang, a University of Utah associate professor of law, and a team of students examined the link between discipline in Utah elementary schools and dropout rates.

“Utah is disciplining its most vulnerable children, and we're starting to do it at a really young age--that the school discipline is starting as early as elementary school, where you are talking about kids between 5 and 12, ” Chiang said.

Chiang said when students ages 8 through 12 are taken out of the classroom and are suspended, expelled, or arrested, they’re less likely to finish school and more likely to wind up in prison.

“Because most of the studies show that when you discipline students and you don’t address the underlying issues, all you are doing really is pushing them out of school," she said. "They feel alienated. They fall behind in their classes. And they become disengaged, and it gives them the opportunity to interact with other, you know, misbehaving students because they’re not in school."

Their study, "From Fingerpaint to Fingerprints: The School-to-Prison Pipeline in Utah," draws on 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Their findings indicate:

  • Disabled students are twice as likely to be disciplined as other students.
  • A total of 1,230 elementary students in were disciplined by being expelled, arrested or referred to law enforcement.
  • American Indian students are 3.5 times more likely to be disciplined than any other race.
  • Male students are disciplined twice as often as female students.
  • As a result, nearly one in five students in Utah drop out.

And students who drop out face a variety of obstacles as a result.

“We know that the consequences of dropping out of high school are so severe,” Chiang said. “They’re not just economic. You’re definitely going to make less money, you're less likely to be employed, you're more likely to be on public assistance, and you're more likely to be arrested as an adult unfortunately."

Researchers said administrators should move away from harsh school discipline and more toward practices where teachers work with students to encourage better behavior.

Vanessa Walsh is a law student at the U of U who worked with Chiang on the research, and she spoke about some of those alternatives.

“I think especially with the younger kids, an intervention, or a counseling type of approach instead of immediate expulsion or suspension would go a long way,” she said.

It's an approach that Canyons School District is currently implementing, and so far, it's working. They've seen a decrease in the number of discipline hearings.

Researchers said they realize teachers are dealing with a lot in the classroom and may not have the best resources available to them.

Walsh said: “We need to give schools resources and teachers resources to have different conversations, which I think it's very important that the legislature get involved, because they have the funds, and they can also look at, you know, the much bigger problem. Because elementary schools is just a very small part of a very big problem."

To read the full study, click here.

8 comments

  • Finny Wiggen

    “As a result, nearly one in five students in Utah drop out.”

    Bull! There is no causal relationship between how students are disciplined and whether or not they graduate, or go to prison. One can be an indicator of the other, without being causally related. Way to shift the blame from parents to the school!!

    If a student behaves in a way, and if that behavior takes away from the opportunities of others in the classroom, then they deserve to face appropriate consequences, including suspension. Vice-principals are very very good at loving their students, and helping them to understand that their actions caused the consequences.

    A school cannot, and should not sacrifice the learning opportunities of the larger population, in order to tolerate the inappropriate behavior of a handful of students who cannot handle themselves appropriately.

    You love them, you teach them, you model for them, and you root for them. But at they end of the day, your greater responsibility is to all of their peers, and to protecting the safety and potential future success of the students that they are disrupting.

    • Sydney

      The article says the data collected by professional researchers show 1 in 5 drop out. They did the research and you didn’t. Go do the research.. The schools don’t get nearly enough funding, the teachers get a less than decent pay and, no, they aren’t handling discipline appropriately. Source: I was in k-12 more recently than you so I have first hand experience. When were you last in grade school? ’74?

      • (dave) miles

        its people like finny who encourage others to be responsible for there actions that make the world a better place and those who think its ok to remove responsibility from the students and families and give it to the schools that cause many many problems for the world at large. people who take responsibility for things are much happier, they do not feel like victims, they get things done rather than complain about them.

        in this case it would be good for the school to try there best to look into helping these misfit kids to become there best selves and set them right at such a young age but its best for the children and families to take there responsibility to make the best choices possible

  • Finny Wiggen

    “As a result, nearly one in five students in Utah drop out.”

    There is no causal relationship between how students are disciplined and whether or not they graduate, or go to prison. One can be an indicator of the other, without being causally related. Way to shift the blame from parents to the school!!

    If a student behaves in a way, and if that behavior takes away from the opportunities of others in the classroom, then they deserve to face appropriate consequences, including suspension. Vice-principals are very very good at loving their students, and helping them to understand that their actions caused the consequences.

    A school cannot, and should not sacrifice the learning opportunities of the larger population, in order to tolerate the inappropriate behavior of a handful of students who cannot handle themselves appropriately.

    You love them, you teach them, you model for them, and you root for them. But at they end of the day, your greater responsibility is to all of their peers, and to protecting the safety and potential future success of the students that they are disrupting.

  • Bob

    Maybe children ages 5 through 10 need parents who will teach them morality, honesty, and the value of hard work. If dad’s in prison on drug convictions the child may not always relate to mommy’s boyfriends.

    • Van

      Bob – I don’t disagree with you that parents need to be a big part of teaching children the things schools don’t. Having said that, some of the zero tolerance policies are just plain silly and do more harm than good. Suspending an 8 year old from accidentally walking away with a pencil from a book fair or a 3rd grader for taking apart a pair of safety scissors and calling it brandishing it weapon doesn’t help the child. It hurts them. It starts a stigma that is becoming increasingly harder to shake. It’s even worse if he spend the suspended days at home alone because the parent(s) are working. These policies also aren’t consistent and vary depending on the child’s skin color and/or disability status on IDEA or Section 504. The study highlights the issues, and as a community, we would be well served to examine the causes and find a solution.

  • kelley

    Way back in 1967 when I was in third grade I had a mean teacher. She rapped my knuckles with a ruler as she walked past my desk. She slammed my face into the opened book on my desk. She stuffed me under her chair for punishment. She put me over a table and beat me with a ruler. She tied me by my hair to the coat rack. I was suspended. I was expelled. Guess what? I never went to prison. I’m a law abiding citizen. I credit my parents for raising me to be a good person. I had good teachers and teachers that I didn’t think were that great. There were also a lot of other adults in my life to guide me. A study cannot point the blame at any single factor that leads a person to life behind bars. It is unfair of you to make a single minded supposition. Data can be found to support any point of view. Being an educator is a tough job that is getting less and less support from the community and government. Who will educate us when education becomes an undesirable field of work?

    • Van

      Kelley – the data in the study does not suggest school discipline is the single factor. In fact, it recognizes there are many factors. It also does not place blame on teachers, It highlights the disproportionality of disciplinary action and suggests a correlation – not a causation. The study “Fingerpaint to Fingerprints” can be found at the Fox 13 news website and at the University of Utah Law School website. Reading it in its entirely provides context.

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