Discipline disparity investigated in South Bend schools

By The Associated Press

SOUTH BEND — U.S. Department of Justice officials are visiting multiple South Bend schools to investigate racial disparities in student discipline that leaves black students expelled and suspended at a higher rate than their white classmates.

After experts observe about seven or eight classrooms this week, the federal agency will report back to South Bend Community School Corp. officials on Friday and recommend a series of discipline methods.

The Justice Department’s probe comes after the South Bend Tribune reported in late January that black students, who make up 37% of the district’s current enrollment of about 16,500 students, are nearly five times as likely to be expelled and nearly four times as likely to be suspended.

About 26% of the district's black students have received an out-of-school suspension, which is more than any other ethnic group, according to information from the Indiana Department of Education.

District spokeswoman Susan Guibert told the newspaper Tuesday that Superintendent Todd Cummings' administration has tried to get the numbers under control since he was hired last year.

“Even though we have been attempting with different initiatives to eliminate this disproportionality, the numbers still need improved,” she said. “The Department of Justice is bringing in an expert to observe and assess and make recommendations on how we can help this situation.”

At a school board meeting on Monday, board member Oletha Jones said the racial discipline gap “doesn’t get talked about very much.”

“I do believe we have an opportunity at this time to really get this right,” she noted.

In 2013, the school district created a department to address the lopsided discipline.

Seven years later, the district has spent over $1 million on salaries for the department. Yet, black students are suspended and expelled more often than before the department was established.

Of the district's 6,754 black students in 2018, 61% of them were suspended out of school compared with 39% in 2013. Meanwhile, slightly under 2% of the total black student population were expelled in 2018 compared with 0.68% five years prior.

“It’s somewhat disheartening that we have come this far with little to no real change,” Jones said. “I hope we use this alarm by the Department of Justice to get serious about this. There is too much at stake.”

A Justice Department spokesperson confirmed that a team of representatives are “monitoring the open desegregation case.”

The department has monitored South Bend schools since it was desegregated under a 1981 consent decree.

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