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The Difference: Lawmakers Consider School Discipline Overhaul

We continue our series The Difference, exploring black male achievement - today, on a statewide level.

Even when the Indiana General Assembly isn’t in session, lawmakers meet in interim study committees to discuss complex issues facing the state. A few weeks ago, the education committee tackled school discipline.

Those who testified claimed that Indiana’s discipline code is punitive and inconsistent with research, and that suspensions and expulsions disproportionately affect students of color.

Some lawmakers, like Democratic Representative Vernon Smith agreed that a change is needed

“What we’re trying to get the state to understand is that we’ve got to become proactive," says Smith, "the focus has to be different from where it is now, just waiting till we get the negative behavior and responding with zero tolerance.”

House Bill 1287 wants to overhaul the state’s discipline code. It would require schools to take preventative measures, and use alternatives to suspensions and expulsions to keep more kids in school. More evidence based practices. More data reporting. Hopefully, more equity.

But some lawmakers had concerns about what that would mean for Indiana. 

Everyone who testified on the matter agreed – from lawyers to teachers– there is a problem, and there are ways to improve it.  

Nathanial Williams was among the first to testify. He’s a doctoral candidate at IUPUI, focusing on the school to prison pipeline. There’s plenty of research suggesting that phenomenon of escalating punishment is real, and disproportionately effects boys and men of color.

Williams took questions after his presentation.

“To get suspended or disciplined, you have to do something, correct?” asked republican Representative Jim Lucas."

"There’s no research that says that,” said Williams.  

“These kids are getting suspended for a reason, correct?” asked Lucas.

“That’s very subjective I’m sorry,” said Williams. 

“If a child actually is committing the offense, I’m having a hard time seeing what the problem is," said Lucas.

But lawmakers also had several misgivings about the bill itself. First – dollars and cents. It would make grants available to schools to help them implement new systems.

Carol Craig of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative testified that the state needs to invest in best practices.

Representative Lucas took issue.  

“Bottom line right here is what percentage of responsibility does the student bear for learning?” asked Lucas. “The state of Indiana spends over half of its budget on k through 12 education.” 

Credit Virginia Alvino / WBOI News
All Indiana education budget figures for fiscal year 2014. Source: State Budget Agency.

  About fifty percent from the state’s general funds,  in addition to more than $900 million in federal dollars, and local money goes towards K through 12 in Indiana. 

Another concern – federal intrusion. That’s what republican Representative Rhonda Rhodes was most worried about.

“You said if we weren’t doing something, then the Office of Civil Rights would come in," said Rhodes. "You’re saying they would come into our schools, and they, the federal government would be looking into how we’re disciplining and what the problem is?”

"If it’s found to be that there’s evidence of disparate treatment, then yes, that does lead toward an investigation by the federal government,” says Carol Craig. 

That’s just the law – think of schools like the work place – civil rights protections already exist.

That lead lawmakers to their last concern – lawsuits. Attorney JauNae Hanger says although schools could be sued for discrimination, fear shouldn’t prevent the state from collecting discipline data.

“Nobody’s looking for law suits because of your data," says Hanger. "The reason why I’m here is because I want to prevent you having law suits, and I think the data can say, ok what do we need to do to help that school."

In Indiana, Hanger says some individual districts have seen success revamping their own plans, and implementing them cost effectively.

“There’s a lot that can be done, we just need to start sharing all the materials," says Hanger. "But I do think there is a role to look at how laws drive practices.”:

Regina Williams Preston sees these practices first hand every day – she’s a public school teacher in Indiana. During her testimony, she reminded lawmakers that the reason for this discussion – was to benefit the students.

“Please remember the purpose of this legislation is not just to reduce suspensions and expulsions, but it’s to increase children’s access to quality instruction," says Preston. "It’s a moral issue, and a civil rights issue.”

She says some Hoosier schools are playing games with their numbers – like sending kids to alternative schools just to make their own disciplinary numbers look better.

‘We just tell our parents, you know what I’ll do you a favor, we won’t put him up for expulsion if you just withdraw him from school," says Preston. "Whose numbers, whose record are we concerned about when we do that.”

Preston says according to her district’s data, black students are continually suspended for things like intimidation and disrespect – generally more subjective infractions than their white counterparts.

The overhauled school code would address the issue of implicit bias, which help educators interpret students’ behavior in a fairer, more uniform way.

Preston says just because there’s lots of factors that contribute to discipline disparity, there’s no excuse for action not to be taken at the state level.

“When we say its poverty, and we say it’s parents, we giving our selves permission to say I can’t do anything about it, because we can’t go give anybody any more money. I can’t solve your home problems," says Preston. "But for that six hours a day, this is what I can do.” 

The legislature won’t decide until the next session, whether or not to take up House Bill 1287 for a vote.

This is the latest installment in WBOI's yearlong project, "The Difference."

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