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Burt: Wyoming has work to do on protecting and nurturing all children

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Data released from the U.S. Department of Education this month highlights how students of color and those with disabilities are being systematically denied access to education. According to the new data, during the 2011-2012 school years, Black students were suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. Students with disabilities were twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as other non-disabled peers. Both groups of students were also more likely to be referred to law enforcement and arrested at school.

Critics might claim that these numbers are the result of children of color misbehaving more, but facts do not substantiate these claims. As experts at Indiana University recently pointed out, “the data are consistent: There is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races.” These experts also point out that disparities are often greatest for subjective offenses, like “disrespect” rather than objective ones – like smoking.

Wyoming has one of the highest rates of physically restraining students with disabilities in the nation. While less than 15 percent of Wyoming students are disabled over 93 percent of the students physically restrained in our school districts are disabled students.

Additionally, the data exposing harsher punishment of children of color is definitive in many of Wyoming’s local school districts. For example, in Laramie County School District No. 1, Hispanic students comprised only 17 percent of the population but make up 29 percent of students with more than one suspension, 29 percent of school related arrests and 31 percent on which corporal punishment is used. Even more shocking is the fact that Latino students with disabilities make up 78 percent of the disabled students arrested at the school.

Albany County School District No. 1 has a Hispanic student population of 17 percent but Hispanic students without disabilities represent 24 percent of those receiving one out-of-school suspension and 54 percent of those referred to law enforcement. Furthermore, Black individuals are also almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in Albany County, with no evidence of differences in usage.

In Lander, Fremont County School District No. 1 has a Native American population of 13 percent, yet Native American students without disabilities make up 30 percent of those suspended and 50 percent of those expelled with no educational services provided.

Natrona County School District No. 1 is 9 percent Hispanic yet Hispanic students without disabilities account for 18 percent of the onetime suspensions; 20 percent of those suspended more than one time; 67 percent expelled under zero tolerance policies and 13 percent of referrals to law enforcement. Furthermore, Natrona County has 13 percent of the juvenile population of Wyoming and accounts for 20 percent of juvenile arrests with the highest rate of juveniles in detention and one of the State’s lowest graduation rates. (To look at the statistics for your local district go online to: 1.usa.gov/1mFfKm8)

In Wyoming and across the nation it is clear that students of color are receiving disproportionately harsh treatment for misbehavior – or perceived misbehavior. Too many young people are being pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems instead of given the chance to learn from their mistakes. What has been shown consistently is that keeping kids out of school causes life-long damage; children are more likely to fail classes, drop out, and become involved with the juvenile justice system and eventually the adult criminal system. This phenomenon is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Our priority as a civilized society should be to protect and nurture all children and we should be using every available means to keep kids in school and out of the school-to-prison pipeline. Wyoming has a long way to go before meeting this standard.

Linda Burt is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming.

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