Native American Teachers

Joan Willow leads her classroom at the Arapahoe Elementary School recently in Arapahoe. A new study shows Native American students in Wyoming are disproportionately suspended from school.

Native American students in Wyoming are disproportionately suspended from school compared to their non-Indigenous peers, leading to negative outcomes like poor grades and dropping out, according to a new report.

The report by the Wyoming Community Foundation found that schools disproportionately give students of color harsher “exclusionary” discipline, with Indigenous students facing the biggest disparity, when compared to white students.

The “exclusionary” discipline — in-school and out-of-school suspensions — can lead to poor grades; students having to repeat grades; an increased likelihood of students dropping out; and less engagement with their peers, teachers and school, according to the foundation’s findings and other reports it cited.

“We know that discipline and order are important to creating a classroom where all students learn,” Samin Dadelahi, Chief Operating Officer of the Wyoming Community Foundation, said in an Aug. 29 news release announcing the report’s release. “There are times when exclusionary discipline is necessary, but evidence shows that finding alternatives to suspension increases the chance for student success.”

Using federal government data on school disciplinary actions from the 2015-16 school year, the foundation, which relied on the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming for data collection and analysis help, found that Native American students were over-represented by more than 5 percent with in- and out-of-school suspensions. Hispanic students were over-represented by close to 4 percent.

The numbers were unsurprising, Dadelahi said.

Schools also suspended white students at a lower rate than expected based on enrollment numbers.

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Of the little more than 94,000 students enrolled in Wyoming schools that year, according to state Department of Education data, 3.3 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native, while 14.1 percent of the state’s student were Hispanic. White students made up about 78 percent of students in Wyoming, with 2.1 percent being two or more races.

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Those numbers are nearly identical to last year’s state enrollment numbers.

Much of the disparity, the foundation said, can be blamed on implicit bias — unconscious and unintentional assumptions about a person or group of people based on gender, age, race, ethnicity or disability — when determining a response to student behavior that allows for subjectivity in discipline.

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Schools that want to examine the issue could look at why students engage in behaviors for which they receive suspensions, what situations lead to suspensions, what factors reduce quality relationships between students and teachers, what disciplinary practices are used well, and what practices need improvement, according to the report.

“All of us have biases that we may not be aware of,” Dadelahi said. “It’s important for schools and communities to take a look at rates of suspensions in their schools.”

To reduce the disparity, the report suggested that schools could address implicit bias and disciplining students using a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports approach, which encourages positive and other alternatives to traditional methods of discipline like suspensions.

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The method can reduce individual student misbehavior, improve their grades and improve school safety by better understanding the student’s behavior by changing systems, altering environments, creating a support system, teaching skills and focusing on positive behaviors, according to the Wyoming Department of Education.

Wyoming education officials support the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports approach and offer resources, training and other guidance to districts that want to learn more, state Department of Education spokesperson Michelle Panos said.

“The WDE supports the implementation of PBIS,” she said. “It is designed to benefit all students, not just particular subgroups.”

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Follow reporter Chris Aadland on Twitter @cjaadland


Chris Aadland covers the Wind River Reservation and tribal affairs for the Star-Tribune as a Report for America corps member. A Minnesota native, he spent the last two years reporting for the Wisconsin State Journal before moving to Wyoming in June 2019.

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