Op-ed: Give all Utah children the opportunity to fulfill their true potential


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…

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