21 Investigates: Black students face harsher punishments in area schools, according to state data

Published: Jan. 23, 2023 at 6:41 PM EST
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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA) -The latest numbers released by the Indiana Department of Education reveal that black students are being suspended at higher rates. 21 Investigates looked at the numbers in our area’s four largest school districts: Southwest Allen County Schools, Northwest Allen County Schools, East Allen County Schools and Fort Wayne Community Schools.

The numbers were consistent.

Each district shows a higher percentage of black students being suspended, despite making up a minority of the student population. As a result, school administrators in Northeast Indiana are having more conversations surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion. Educators say the numbers are concerning and they are working to find a solution.

Fort Wayne Community Schools is the largest school district in our area and the most diverse. That is why 21 Investigates took a closer look at those numbers.

The data is based on the 2019-2020 school year. During that time there were roughly 28,400 students enrolled at FWCS. According to the statistics, 25 percent of those students were black, while 38 percent were white. Records show black students accounted for 19 percent of the students suspended, compared to 8 percent of white students.

“We’re not happy with those numbers,” said Dr. Debra Faye Williams-Robbins Deputy Superintendent.

The disparity is alarming to educators, who say they are desperately trying to correct the problem. However, it’s a complex problem with no simple solution. Dr. Williams-Robbins said the school district can’t do it alone.

The district is working to hire a teaching staff that is more reflective of its student body. There are also training sessions and conversations surrounding cultural differences.

“I don’t see us intentionally saying, ‘black kids, Latino kids.... we are going to treat them differently,’” said Williams-Robbins. “We follow the code of conduct. But that also means we need to provide professional education to the adults who are implementing that.”

John Houser, who is the principal at Wayne High School, said he oversees one of the most diverse schools in the district. In fact, he said it’s so diverse that of every ten students standing in the lunch line, seven will be students of color. He believes the lack of representation has consequences.

“If you look at our teaching staff, we really struggle with a diverse teaching staff,” he said. “I think students may come to school and think, ‘do you value me, do you think I can make an A in your class?’”

Houser said he and with other school administrators put an emphasis on creating a learning environment where students feel seen, heard and are represented.

“There’s always been an intentionality that we will hire a staff that will connect with our kids and bottom line is look like our kids,”

According to the Indiana Department of Education 89 percent of fulltime educators at FWCS are white, compared to about 6 percent of educators who are black.

“We now have a department that looks at what we’re doing, who we hire, what we provide as instruction,” said Williams-Robbins. “It’s not just are we diverse or do we have diverse education and administrators? The biggest piece, is the inclusion piece.”

Aaron and Janell Lane opened Courageous Healing last year, which they describe as a culturally centered counseling facility. However, before opening their practice, the husband-and-wife duo worked at area school districts through a grant funded program, helping students who were on the verge of being suspended or expelled.

“A lot of students I was dealing with that had behavioral problems were also dealing with family traumas or experiencing homelessness,” said Janell Lane.

Lane said many teachers need to better understand the issues in the black community, including social factors and traumas that may contribute to behavioral problems. She said the disconnect between students and their teachers likely come from a lack of exposure and cultural understanding.

“If you see a behavior from a white student and you are used to doing life with white students it might not provoke anxiety for you as an adult,” she said. “If you see the same from a student of color, it could trigger anxiety if you’re not use to dealing with them. Then you’re more likely to respond in a punitive way.”

Lane said it is not about replacing teachers, instead it is about educating those who are already in the classroom.

“Even if you don’t have the staff of color you can equip the staff with authentic real transparent conversations not the textbook conversation,” she said. “How are you going to deal with this when it shows up at your door?”