Empty Desks: Discipline & Policing in Montana's Public Schools

December 4, 2019

Faith was 13 years old when school officials first gave her an out-of-school suspension. This was the first of 20 suspensions for minor incidents she received as a student. Once, it was for hugging her boyfriend too long. Another time, because she was eating crackers in the hallway.

Montana’s public-school system selectively denied Faith’s fundamental right to an education by removing her from the academic setting for typical adolescent behavior. Unfortunately, Faith’s experience is not unique.

In our new report, Empty Desks: Discipline & Policing in Montana's Public Schools, we document the use of school-based referrals to law enforcement, arrests, and the “days lost” due to out-of-school suspensions. These abuses harm students, our communities, and our state. Students across Montana -- in elementary, middle, and high schools --  lost more than 18,000 days of instruction due to out-of-school suspensions during 2015-16 alone. They were referred to law enforcement more than 1,100 times and were arrested 326 times. 

Bar graph of days lost data by race and population percentage

Indigenous Students, Students of Color, and Students With a Disability More Likely to Be Disciplined or Have Interactions With Police
  • Indigenous students experienced the highest disparities: they lost nearly six times the amount of instruction as white students and were arrested more than six times as often as white students.
  • Black students lost nearly three times the amount of instruction as white students. 
  • Latinx students lost 1.5 times the amount of instruction as white students.
  • Students with disabilities lost more than twice the amount of instruction as students without disabilities and were arrested twice as often as students without disabilities. 
  • Students on reservations and students who attended schools with the regular presence of law enforcement officers lost more days of instruction than their peers. 

Days Lost per 100 Students

Graph of Days Lost by Race

Referrals per 10,000 Students by Race
Bar graph of number of referrals per 10,000 students by race

Arrests per 10,000 Students by Race
Bar Graph of number of arrests per 1,000 students by race


The numbers -- and the disparities -- are clear and troubling.  

Schools should be a supportive and safe space for all students to learn. Too often, however, students are forced out of school. This matters: students who experience exclusionary discipline are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be unemployed and ensnared in the criminal justice system. When students are forced out of school, it's costly to our communities and state, but more importantly it robs students of their right to an education.

Schools with Arrests
Infographic map demonstrating concentration of number of arrests in schools

The Harm on Indigenous Students is Compounded by the Horrific Legacy of Colonialism
Exclusionary discipline and interaction with law enforcement harm all students. That harm is compounded for Indigenous students, however. Indigenous communities continue to endure historical trauma and economic and social disparities from a long history of discrimination and brutality under colonization. We must bear this history in mind when examining how exclusionary discipline and over-reliance on police in schools affect Indigenous students.

Montana’s Schools Lack Mental Health Staff
Nationwide data show that schools that employ school counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists see improved attendance rates, lower rates of exclusionary discipline, improved graduation rates, and improved school safety. However, many Montana schools do not meet the recommended ratio of school-based mental health staff, including nurses, social workers, psychologists, or social workers. About 12 percent of Montana’s schools do not have any support staff at all. 

Montana Must Move Away From These Harmful Practices
About half of Montana’s public schools did not give students out-of-school suspensions, and just 33 schools accounted for all of the arrests that occurred in Montana’s schools. Arrests and suspensions are not necessary components of managing student behavior.  

All of Montana’s schools should use evidence-based disciplinary practices that create better outcomes for all students. We owe that to our children. Our report includes detailed recommendations for state lawmakers, school administrators, educators, school boards, and students and guardians. Check out the report and learn how the schools in your area are doing when it comes to discipline and law enforcement.