Report: Minority, disabled students suspended more often

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — Montana’s most disadvantaged students, especially Native American students, have missed a disproportionate number of school days due to out-of-school suspensions, referrals and arrests, according to an ACLU of Montana report released Wednesday.

The report found that students across Montana lost more than 18,000 days of instruction, or about 12 days for every 100 students, due to out-of-school suspensions during 2015-2016 alone, using the most recent state and federal data available.

Native American students lost nearly six times the amount of instruction due to out-of-school suspensions and were arrested more than six times as often as their white peers in the 2015-2016 school year.

The report highlights the use of exclusionary discipline, or any type of discipline that removes a student from their usual educational setting such as out-of-school suspensions, as well as referrals to and arrests by law enforcement officers.

“Education is a civil right, and all students must be given equitable opportunities to learn,” Caitlin Borgmann, ACLU of Montana Executive Director, said in a press release. “The data is extremely troubling and shows too many students in Montana being denied this fundamental right.”

The report found that students with disabilities and students of color were punished at a higher rate than white students. Students with disabilities lost twice the rate of instruction and were arrested twice as often as students without disabilities. Black students were referred to law enforcement at a higher rate than any other race and lost nearly three times as many days of instruction as white students. Latino students lost 1.5 times the rate of days as white students.

The report also found that students in Montana were arrested 326 times and referred to law enforcement 1,121 times in 2015-2016. The arrests occurred at 33 schools throughout the state, but nearly half of them occurred at two schools: 111 occurred at East Middle School in Great Falls and 50 occurred at Flathead High School in Kalispell.

Laurie A. Walker, an associate professor at the University of Montana School of Social Work and co-author of the report, said ACLU of Montana sent records requests to about a dozen school districts, including Great Falls Public Schools, to find out what behaviors among students resulted in suspensions or referrals to law enforcement. Walker said Great Falls Public Schools "effectively denied" the request when the district said the information would cost the ACLU of Montana more than $9,000.

Schools are not required to report the reasons students face suspension or are referred to law enforcement.

"There are very limited regulations or laws at the state level, so that opens up the opportunity for biased implementation of the rules by teachers or administrators who might act on negative stereotypes they have or implicit biases, or sometimes even outright racism," said Kirsten Bokenkamp, ACLU of Montana communications director and co-author of the report.

The report refers to a Montana high-schooler named Faith who received 20 out-of-school suspensions for minor incidents such as eating crackers in the hallway, at a school with a 98% Native American student population and a mostly white staff. Faith's grandmother, Lois, brought the suspensions up at a school board meeting, after which Faith was never suspended again.

"The school system kept Faith down," Lois said in the report. "We challenged the system and she rose above, but I know a lot of kids who don’t graduate after being treated so unfairly.”

Notably, female Native American students had the highest school-related arrest rates among all students; they were arrested at 12 times the rate of white female students.

The 10 schools with the highest rate of days lost were located either on a reservation or in a town bordering a reservation, but indigenous students in urban areas such as Missoula also experienced disparities in days lost. In comparison to white students, Native American students in 2015-2016 had:

    1. Seven times the rate of days lost at Washington Middle School in Missoula.

    2. More than four times the rate of days lost at Sentinel High School in Missoula.

    3. More than three times the rate of days lost at Hellgate High School.

Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson said he doesn't believe district administrators realized the rate of out-of-school suspensions was greater for Native American students at some schools, and said that although the district reports the number of suspensions to the state, they are not required to calculate the rates.

"This is more than likely a systemic issue," Watson said. “If as a system we are suspending students of color, or students with disabilities more often than their peers, then that's something we need to address as a system.”

Watson said restorative discipline practices that do not remove students from their usual educational settings are gaining traction within the district.

"You haven't seen it rise the level of policy yet, but it very well could if we have more schools that are looking at those sorts of things," Watson said. "We'd much rather have those kids in school, and that's what those restorative practices are designed to do."

The district has also made recent efforts to help ensure that Native students receive necessary support and equal educational opportunity, such as holding a cultural competency training for staff this fall.

The opt-in training, which came at the request of teachers, aimed to help staff understand Native American family dynamics as well as how things like intergenerational trauma can affect Native students.

"It's just understanding how to better communicate with their Native American students and their families, and I think that should be something that all school districts should try to implement," said Crystal White Shield, a Native American specialist with the district's Indian Education Department who helped organize the training.

White Shield said she feels the district has made a lot of progress since the 2015-2016 school year and has supported the department, which provides academic support to Native students and hosts community events.

Missoula County Public Schools was not cited in the report for having any student arrests in 2015-2016, although each of its four high schools have an assigned school resource officer, with another overseeing the district's three middle schools.

About one-fifth of Montana’s schools use law enforcement — a number the ACLU long has lobbied for reducing, citing data that shows a law enforcement presence in schools fails to make schools safer, according to the report. However, such data isn't universal; other reports have shown a police presence in schools can help in terms of school safety.

Walker said schools should have less police and more mental health support staff to address the needs of students.

The report focuses on recommendations that professional associations for groups like social workers adhere to, which typically call for more staff than Montana law.

Greg Upham, the superintendent of Billings Public Schools, called the report “alarming.”

He focused on structural changes to schools to build more investment from students and families as a solution instead of specific discipline reforms, but did address out-of-school suspensions when asked why schools still use them.

“Because it’s always been done that way. I say that a little bit tongue in cheek, but I don’t,” he said. “I really believe that we need to really comprehensively look at our current system.

“On the other side of that, the issues of school safety are real. They’re absolutely real,” Upham said. “A suspension very well may be warranted for the safety of all. That’s the other side of this.”

The ACLU of Montana also recommended that schools limit exclusionary discipline practices that remove students from their usual educational setting, and limit law enforcement presence in schools to serious criminal matters or imminent threats to student/staff safety.

The report also calls for schools to invest in and meet the recommended ratios for school-based support staff, including psychologists, nurses, counselors, and social workers, and fund training for educators on research-based alternatives to manage student behavior.

"The choice to use exclusionary discipline on a student is exactly that, it's a choice," said Bokenkamp. “We hope that those who are meting out exclusionary discipline think about the implications that it has on a child's life.”