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Black students disciplined at higher rates in Indiana schools

Posted at 5:30 AM, Nov 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-08 22:37:48-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Black students in Indiana schools are suspended, expelled, and arrested at higher rates than white students, according to federal and state data analyzed by Call 6 Investigates.

Call 6 Investigates found the discipline disparity in our state is having a devastating impact on families in central Indiana and taxpayers are paying the price as well.

'When we get in trouble, it’s a bigger consequence'

Nicole Kenney lives on the east side with her two teenage boys — William, 14, and Quintez, 16.

“I worry about them every single day,” Nicole said. “Because of the color of their skin, they’re already stereotyped before they get into the school.”

Both of Nicole’s sons have been disciplined in school.

Nicole Kenney and sons.jpeg
Nicole Kenney is pictured with her sons, William, left, and Quintez.

Most recently, Quintez received a 15-day out-of-school suspension and William served a 10-day out-of-school suspension.

Nicole says Quintez stood up for his brother who was being bullied, but the bully, who is white, was back in school after 3 days.

"That was very discriminating,” Nicole said. “We don't want to see our young black boys out here in the streets. You suspended him for 10 days, what good is that going to do for them?”

Nicole says out-of-school suspensions only contribute to behavioral problems in students.

“That means they're at home, they have nothing to do,” she said. “They're more likely to go out and commit a crime."

Both William and Quintez have changed schools several times and say they want to learn.

“When I got suspended for 2 weeks I was like, ‘dang, I'm not going to be in school and I'm going to be missing out on a lot of work,’" William said.

William and Quintez say they’ve noticed black students, especially boys, are treated more harshly than other races.

“When we get in trouble, it’s a bigger consequence,” William said.

"I feel like I’ve been targeted,” Quintez said. “It makes me feel like I’m not going to be nothing. Like, is it true what they're saying? Makes me feel sad."

Indiana Ranks 4th Highest in the Country

Nicole and her boys are not alone.

Black students in Indiana are nearly four times as likely to get an out-of-school suspension than their white peers, according to state data, and twice as likely to receive an in-school suspension than white students.

Indiana also ranks 4th highest in the country when it comes to the rate of out-of-school suspensions for black teens in middle and high school, according to the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.

24% or nearly a quarter of black middle and high school students in Indiana have been suspended at least once.

“That is very high,” Daniel Losen, director for the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, said. “It appears that suspension use is excessive and contributing to huge inequities in the opportunity to learn. For example, black secondary students lost 111 days of instruction per 100 enrolled compared to just 23 for white secondary students.”

At the largest school district in central Indiana, Indianapolis Public Schools — 48.5 % of the student body is black, according to federal data. Yet, black IPS students make up 64% of in-school suspensions, 71% of out-of-school suspensions and 73% of expulsions.


  • Enter your district’s name and click on disciplinary report on the right-hand side of the page.
  • Note: this data collection is from the 2015-2016 school year.
  • The next data collection, from the 2017-2018 school year, won’t be released until 2020

Reasons Behind the State’s Discipline Disparity

Call 6 Investigates spoke with more than a dozen groups and experts to find out why the discipline disparity is happening in Indiana.

JauNae Hanger and Dr. Gwen Kelley with the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana say one reason is schools’ zero tolerance policies that don’t take into account why students behave a certain way.

“As the mantra has been to crack down on crime, we’ve also tried to crack down on kids,” Hanger said. “We really need to take a hard look at when we bring down the hammer.”

Another reason for the state’s discipline disparity — implicit bias among teachers and administrators.

"We all have bias, and bias is assumptions we make about things in our lives and the people we engage with,” Hanger said.

RELATED | PBS explains what is implicit bias?

Another reason for the disparity in discipline is that black students are more likely to attend schools that don’t have the resources to properly deal with student behavior.

“When you look at the reasons why students have been suspended, it’s defiance, disrespect, insubordination and things that are more subjective,” Kelley said. “Teachers have biases against black boys and there’s been research about that.”

ACLU of Indiana Executive Director Jane Henegar said black students are also more likely to attend schools that have police but no counselors.

“Many children of color attend under-resourced schools, under-resourced districts because of disparities in income,” Henegar said. “It really sets the children up for failure. We know students of color are more likely to be more harshly disciplined for the exact same behavior than white students, we need to own up to that and do something about it.”

Experts told us that teachers and administrators of all races can exhibit bias when disciplining children.

Dr. Breanca Merritt, the director of Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy at Indiana University, said research shows that the race and background of the teachers and administrators make a difference in school discipline.

“In schools where teachers and principals look more like the students they’re serving, we find that tends to have better outcomes for kids,” Merritt said. “They’re less likely to be disciplined if they have someone who looks like them in the classroom.”

Merritt explained the discipline disparity affects black male students the most.

“Boys in general tend to be a little more rowdy in the classroom, so a teacher can’t distinguish the rowdiness from a general behavior and not being to disentangle that, and assigning blame rather than just realizing that the student is being himself,” Merritt said.

The School to Prison Pipeline and the Impact on Our Pocketbook

The disparity is happening with student arrests as well.

State data shows black students make up 12% of the state’s student population, yet comprise 26% of arrests on school property.

This School-to-Prison Pipeline in Indiana study shows students who get in trouble in school are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.

Hanger said the discipline disparity in schools impacts crime and public safety in Indiana.

"Students face collateral consequences that follow them and disadvantage them from being successful," Hanger said. “It’s also an issue of public safety. If we want to reduce crime rates, then we need to engage people in systems that actually make them successful.”

When students fail to graduate and get jobs, we all pay for it — especially if they end up in jail or prison.

Hoosier taxpayers pay $77,427 a year to confine a single young person — that’s more than it costs to send your child to college for a year.

People who do not graduate high school earn approximately $630,000 less throughout their lifetime.

In a national study, the Justice Policy Institute found that between $4 billion and nearly $8 billion is lost annually when young people are confined by the courts.

Solutions to Discipline Disparity

Hanger and Kelley say part of the solution is training for teachers and school administrators on things like implicit bias, trauma informed learning, and cultural competency.

As part of the Positive School Discipline Institute program, they’ve trained 34 schools so far — teaching school leaders to focus on why students behave the way they do.

They want to make it clear that it does not mean that they’re not holding students accountable.

“We’re not saying kids should come to school and cuss everybody out, but usually there’s a reason behind what happened,” Kelley said.

Currently, the Indiana Department of Education offers implicit bias training to schools, however, it’s optional for schools to take the training.

IDOE spokesperson Adam Baker said the program just began for the 2019-2020 school year and was prompted by legislation.

So far, the state has provided training to several districts including Marion, IPS, and Kokomo.

The ACLU of Indiana says another solution to the discipline disparity is adding more school counselors and also training school resource officers in trauma and implicit bias.

“We want to make sure that the school safety officers that are there, that they’re trained and that there’s transparency,” Henegar said. “What is leading to these disparities? We need better reporting so we can all understand the pressures and constraints that are facing school police officers, because no one wants to go into a job where they’re ill-equipped and poorly trained.”

Nicole Kenney says it also comes down to cultural and communication differences.

Kenney said another solution is for schools to hire more staff that come from the same backgrounds and neighborhoods as their own students.

“Some of these kids are waking up every day in an abandoned house and coming to school,” Nicole said. “I feel like if they have more teachers and more counselors in the school that come from the environments these kids are coming from, they would have a better understanding and they would have a different discipline plan for these children. "

One High School’s Unique Approach

On the west side, near the White River, a high school does things a little differently when it comes to student discipline.

Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, or “Indy Met” for short, is home to 270 students — 92% of them are students of color.

Kiersten Manuel, 17, came to Indy Met after she was expelled from her previous school.

“I got in a lot of trouble, and got into a lot of fights,” Manuel said. “The teachers gave up on me.”

Records show the district where Manuel was expelled from had a student population of 40% black, yet black students made up 68% of expulsions.

Nearly all of the students at Indy Met have a barrier of some kind including homelessness, teen pregnancy, or involvement in the foster care or criminal justice system.

Most students come to Indy Met as juniors or seniors, and many were suspended or expelled from their previous schools.

"The juniors on average have been to 2 other high schools before they get to us, and seniors on average have been to 3 other high schools," Principal Christina Lear said.

Lear said Indy Met helps students address things like anger and trauma.

Techniques include restorative chats where students can express their feelings, and peace paths, where students can talk about a conflict and reach a resolution.

Call 6: School takes unique approach to student discipline

"What we're trying to teach students is you don't need to get into a fight, you don't need to yell at anyone, and you can work through communication skills,” Lear said. “Communication skills are something you have to teach and it's not something that comes naturally. "

Outside of each room at Indy Met sits a green chair where students can sit and catch their breath.

Manuel said she’s used it to avoid blowing up.

“If you don't like something the teacher says, you can just sit out and say, 'Can I have the green chair pass,'” Manuel said. “You calm down, collect yourself, and go back in."

Indy Met participated in a year-long training through the Positive School Discipline Institute.

Since they’ve started these restorative practices in 2017, they’ve reduced out-of-school suspensions by 51% and expulsions by 81%.

“It says it's working,” Lear said. “Students want to learn and be successful but sometimes they need extra supports to do that.”

Indy Met wants to keep students out of the criminal justice system and on the path to graduation.

"We want to make sure our students aren't having a disproportionate amount of interactions with police, and so we try to make sure behaviors we can handle at the school level, we handle it at the school level," Lear said.

Indy Met tries to eliminate barriers for students like providing free child care to teenage parents.

Manuel dreams of becoming a firefighter and helping to save others the way Indy Met has saved her.

“It helped me see clear that I can actually be somebody,” Manuel said. “I can actually go to college. I can do anything I want to do, if I know who I am."

Most schools in Indiana are not using this type of social and emotional approach to learning and discipline.

The training costs time and money, plus it’s a huge mindset shift away from the traditional approach of punishing children into compliance.

What Is the State Doing About Discipline Disparity?

Call 6 Investigates reached out to the Indiana Department of Education to find out what they’re doing to address the problem.

The agency provided the following list detailing its training programs and efforts.

  • The model positive behavior discipline guide has recently been revised to include information about discipline disparity among students of color and encourage the use of these best practices to close that gap.
  • IDOE’s Office of School improvement (OSI) team is presenting culturally responsive teaching practices professional development at conferences and to schools on request.
  • The entire OSI team is attending implicit bias training with Peace Learning Center on October 31 in order to bring this training to schools and to use when we work with schools on improvement.
  • Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) and Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI) schools are required to create a school improvement plan that specifically address under-performing student groups, as well as outline a plan to improve how these groups are addressed in the school — this would include academic and behavior strategies.
  • IDOE is training the entire state on a regional roadshow (10 locations) on Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), which is a model that seeks to address whole child education and promotes EQUITY in schools.
  • Through ESSA requirements, our new public facing data system (to launch later this year) will have statistics on behavior broken out for public consumption, which in theory holds schools more accountable for disparities that may have been overlooked.
  • IDOE recently created Indiana Standards for Ethnic Studies. This was a collaborative effort and involved Garry Holland, the NAACP, and other folks vested in the proliferation of ethnic studies.
  • Additionally, a bill passed in 2017 (which IDOE publicly supported) requiring every high school to offer the study of racial and ethnic groups.

Questions You Can Ask Your Own School

  • What is the school’s discipline policy?
  • What is the process when a student is disciplined or arrested? Will parents be notified?
  • What training is being given to police and resource officers who are interacting with students?
  • Does the school use seclusion rooms or restraint on students?
  • Does the school have school resource officers?
  • Is there a use of force policy for school resource officers?
  • Is there record-keeping and reporting about the activities and outcomes of policing interactions at the school?
  • More questions for parents can be found here.

How to Search Discipline Data for Your School