Examples of disciplinary spaces at public schools around the nation. Source: Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities | GAO-18-258

Native students subjected to higher rates of discipline in public schools

Native American students are subjected to higher rates of discipline than their counterparts at public schools, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

Nearly 569,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students were enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools during the 2013-2014 school year, the report stated. They accounted for just 1.1 percent of the entire student population.

Yet Native students were subjected to higher than average rates of corporal punishment, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, arrests and suspensions, both in and out of school, the data published on Wednesday showed.

"American Indian and Alaska Native students had higher than average rates of receiving each of the six disciplinary actions," the GAO wrote.

Additionally, Native students were more likely to experience chronic absenteeism than their counterparts. Difficulties in getting to school -- road conditions in and near Indian Country are among the worst in the nation -- are seen as a contributing factor for the high rates, according to a prior GAO study.

"American Indian students face school attendance challenges, including access to reliable transportation," the new report said.

Despite the higher than average disciplinary rates for Native students, one group was treated even more poorly. African American students experienced the highest levels of punishment in all but one of the six action areas, with Native youth -- particularly boys -- outpacing referrals to law enforcement, the data showed.

"These disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended," the GAO said in reference to African Americans, boys and students with disabilities.

Among those with disabilities, rates shot up even higher than average for Native students. They were more than 4 times as likely to be subjected to out-of-school suspensions, for example, and 5 times as likely to be referred to law enforcement.

With overwhelming majority of American Indian and Alaska Native students attending public schools, both on and off reservations, advocates have long sought to address the disparities. But the National Indian Education Association and other groups say the Trump administration hasn't done enough include their voices in summit on school safety and school climate that took place in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

While some civil rights, legal and educator groups were represented at the meeting with Secretary Betsy DeVos of the Department of Education, NIEA and others were excluded.

"Although Native American youth make up just one percent of students in school, Native American girls are three times more likely to be suspended and Native American boys are more than twice as likely to be suspended compared to their white counterparts," the National Women’s Law Center said in a letter to DeVos on Wednesday that was joined by NIEA.

The groups that were invited to the meeting later voiced support for those that were left out.

The focus on discipline and safety comes as the nation grapples with shootings in school settings. Since 2005, there have been at least 3 fatal shootings at schools on or near reservations, and Indian students are among the tens of thousands nationwide who have demanded gun reform and an end to violence in their places of learning.

The latest federal data shows that Native students are disproportionately affected on that front as well. They were more likely to report being in fight, both on and off school property, and were more likely to report carrying a weapon than most of their counterparts, according to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety from 2017.

in addition to public settings, about 50,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students attend schools that are overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education, a federal agency. Neither the GAO report, nor the one on crime and school safety, included data from BIE institutions.

But a lawsuit pending in federal court alleges that students from the Havasupai Tribe, especially those with disabilities and special needs, are regularly mistreated at the only school on their reservation in Arizona. One student said a teacher sat on him as punishment when he was only 10 years old and in the fifth grade.

“I can’t breathe. Get off of me, you’re hurting me,” Levi R. told the teacher, according to the complaint in Stephen C. v. BIE. He was referred to law enforcement, placed in handcuffs by a BIA police officer "in front of his peers and marched across town in handcuffs," the complaint stated.

Levi, who is now in the tenth grade, and his siblings are attending a school off the reservation after facing problems at the Havasupai Elementary School. The school only goes from kindergarten through eighth grade and the lawsuit alleges the BIE doesn't prepare them enough for high school away from their community.

In a landmark ruling, a federal judge last week ruled that fellow youth who are still attending school at Havasupai can proceed with some of their claims against the BIE. Federal law entitles the students to sue the BIE for not addressing their exposure to adversity and complex trauma, the decision stated.

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