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Study: California’s Native American Students Suspended, Expelled At Higher Rates

Young Native American women participate in a Hupa

Credit: Sacramento Native American Higher Education Collaborative

Above: Young Native American women participate in a Hupa "Flower Dance" in Sacramento, 2018.

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Native American students make up less than 1% of California’s public K-12 schools, but a new study found that they’re more likely to be suspended or expelled at a higher rate than the state average.

Aired: October 8, 2019 | Transcript

Native American students make up less than 1% of California’s public K-12 schools, but a new study released last month found that they’re more likely to be suspended or expelled at a higher rate than the state average.

The report, From Boarding Schools to Suspension Boards: Suspensions and Expulsions of Native American Students in California Public Schools, is a joint effort between researchers at San Diego State University and Native American scholars across the state.

They found that Native American boys are four times more likely to be expelled from school compared to the state average. Suspension rates for both Native American boys and girls exceed the state average.

Researchers say the findings highlight the need for more culturally informed and less punitive forms of addressing student behaviors.

Reported by Joe Hong , Video by Andi Dukleth

“Most educators are woefully underprepared to engage and teach Native American students because they don’t understand their culture and their lived social-cultural experiences,” said Luke Wood, an education professor at SDSU and one of the report’s co-authors.

According to the study, the suspension rate for Native American boys was 9.6% in the 2017-2018 school year while the state average was 3.5%. The suspension rate for Native American girls was 4.6%.

“It creates an environment where the student doesn’t feel like they belong at the institution,” Wood said. “Teachers just don’t know anything about them, and so students just treat them with more disrespect, disdain, disregard, and then that results in them being suspended and expelled.”

These findings are consistent with Native American communities’ tumultuous history in American education, said Molly Springer, a co-founder of the Sacramento Native American Higher Education Collaborative and a co-author of the report. The original 19th-century boarding schools for Native Americans, she said, were designed to assimilate indigenous youth and “take the wildness out” of them.

“Instead of designing classrooms to subdue people, why not accommodate for students?” Springer said. “If someone’s being disruptive in the classroom, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for why you’re unable to work with the student.”

According to the data published in the report, several local districts in San Diego County had severe disparities in suspension rates. Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District has one of the largest Native American student populations in the county with 187 students. Their suspension rate for Native American boys is more than double the state average for all students.

“We’ve learned that our Native American students come to school with a variety of needs,” superintendent Ron McCowan said. “We need to have open communication so we can find better ways to academically and emotionally support those students.”

The district has started addressing the disparities in school discipline by holding regular meetings with parents and local tribes in hopes to better equip teachers to work with Native American students, he said.

These efforts align with the report’s suggestions for reducing the disparities in suspension and expulsion rates.

“[Educators] can engage with their local tribes and have a better understanding of the indigenous communities that they serve,” Wood said. “The second thing they can do is they can engage in professional learning around implicit bias, around microaggressions and around cultural competency.”

For more on how local schools performed click here.

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

KPBS is a service of San Diego State University.

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