SALT LAKE CITY — Federal education authorities are looking into allegations of racial discrimination and unfair treatment against minority students in the Salt Lake School District.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will investigate the district in response to a complaint of disproportionate discipline for black, Latino, Polynesian and Native American students in the district, among other issues, according to a Wednesday announcement by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Many of the issues in the complaint are based onresearch by the University of Utah, which reveals a similar problem statewide of a “school-to-prison pipeline” for minority students.
American Indian students, for example, are disciplined six times more than expected based on their proportion of Utah’s student body, according to the university report published last year. Black students are disciplined more than three times as often than expected, and Hispanic students are disciplined 1 ½ times more than expected, the report states.
Students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended multiple times as students without disabilities, according to the report.
Civil liberties advocates say this plays out in academic performance. In 2013, 86 percent of white students in Utah graduated from high school, compared to 70 percent of Latino and black students, and 80 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said Leah Farrell, a staff attorney with ACLU. “We do discipline kids of color at a higher rate in Utah. Looking at some of the causes of that, looking at ways that can be addressed where that shouldn’t be happening, I think, is really important.”
The complaint also claims that having student resource police officers at Northwest and Glendale middle schools are the result of the racial composition of the student body, leading to disproportionate contact with law enforcement for minorities.
Salt Lake City School Board member Michael Clara, who is also a member of the Racially Just Utah coalition, filed the complaint to federal education managers in June.
It’s unclear when the investigation will happen or how long it will take, but Office of Civil Rights officials say the investigation will be “prompt.”
District leaders say they “invite any technical help” in providing a quality education for students, and that they are studying discipline data from the district and the state, as well as meeting with community organizations.
“The Salt Lake City School District welcomes any objective review of our programs and practices,” district spokesman Jason Olsen said in a prepared statement. “Appropriate student discipline is a national issue, which is being reviewed and approached on several fronts.
“We look forward to the Office of Civil Rights review and hopefully learning additional ways to help address any possible inequities for the young people we serve,” he said.
While the investigation is limited solely to the district, Farrell said she hopes it will shed light on similar problems elsewhere, including Utah’s rural districts.
“It’s not uniquely a Salt Lake City problem,” she said. “I think this is a great place to start looking into Salt Lake’s practices, but absolutely the conversation and the lens needs to be focused on many places throughout Utah.”
Contributing: Mary Richards