New report highlights discipline disparities for Native American students

While much attention has been directed toward addressing disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates between African American students and their peers, a recent study shows Native American youth face similarly disproportionate rates of discipline.

In a joint report from the Sacramento Native American Higher Education Collaborative and the Community College Equity Assessment Lab at San Diego State University, district self-reported data submitted to the California Department of Education showed the statewide suspension rate for Native American students reached more than 7 percent during the 2017–18 school year — more than double the statewide average of 3.5 percent for all students.

Researchers also found that Native American boys had the highest expulsion rate of any ethnic or gender group at 9.6 percent, 4.2 times higher than the state average. That number has steadily risen over the years, according to the report, which is available in full.

From Boarding Schools to Suspension Boards found that the greatest disparity was found among early learners. Between kindergarten and third grade, Native American girls were 3.7 times more likely to be suspended than their peers, while Native American boys were 2.5 times more likely.

The highest percentage of suspensions for Native American students — both male and female — occurred in middle school. In seventh and eighth grades, Native American boys were suspended at a rate of 16.5 percent (compared to 9 percent of middle school boys statewide). Slightly more than 9 percent of Native American girls were suspended in middle school, compared to 4.3 percent of girls in that grade range statewide.

Significant discrepancies were also identified across regions. According to researchers, Native American boys in Kings County were an alarming 40 times more likely to be expelled than the statewide average. For Native American girls in the county, the expulsion rate was 20 times that of the state average.

Districts throughout Northern California’s Humboldt County were also found to have disproportionately high suspension rates. The Fortuna Union High School District, for instance, reported it suspends Native American boys at the highest rate in California at 71 percent.

The highest suspension district for Native American girls was Loleta Union Elementary — also in Humboldt County. More than 32 percent of Native American girls were suspended during the 2017–18 school year. According to the report’s authors, the district has long struggled to equitably serve its Native American students and was the focus of a 2013 Office of Civil Rights investigation for its treatment of these students.

Additional counties in California with especially high rates of suspension for Native American students include Modoc, Mono and Lassen, the report found.

Many Native American students were suspended due to “willful defiance,” a broad term that can refer to anything from sleeping in class to arguing with a teacher. It has historically also been the category under which African American and Hispanic or Latino students are suspended far more often than their white and Asian peers.

Recent state laws and new legislation are aiming to curb these disparities. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill in September that expands on previous California legislation banning schools from suspending disruptive students in grades K-3 for willful defiance — the law now includes students through middle school. The bill bans willful defiance suspensions in grades 4 and 5 permanently, and in grades 6 through 8 for five years. It goes into effect July 1, 2020.

In addition to banning suspensions for willful defiance, report authors recommended that districts work with local tribes to craft and implement professional training on implicit bias that impacts Native American youth. It is also important that school and district staff familiarize themselves with Native beliefs and values to better prevent misunderstandings that lead to exclusionary practices that hurt Native American children, researchers wrote.