Wichita schools discriminate against blacks in discipline, Justice Department finds
5 mins read

Wichita schools discriminate against blacks in discipline, Justice Department finds

(The Sentinel) — A Justice Department report found widespread evidence of discrimination against students in Wichita Public Schools based on race and disability.

KSNW-TV reports that the Justice Department investigated all 87 schools in the district, as well as all special education programs from fall 2020 to spring 2023.

The Justice Department’s letter to the district attorney said the agency investigated “the administration of school discipline, referrals of student conduct matters to law enforcement, and the use of seclusion and restraint in Wichita Public Schools.”

The Justice Department found that there was discrimination against students on the basis of race and disability during a “relevant period.”

“Specifically, we substantiated allegations that the District discriminated against Black students in school discipline and referrals to law enforcement,” the report reads. “We also found evidence that the District denied students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in or benefit from its educational programs and failed to make reasonable modifications to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability in its educational programs.”

According to the DOJ, black students are disciplined more often and more severely than white students who engage in similar behaviors and have similar backgrounds, and “this pattern was most evident in subjective and vaguely defined offenses such as ‘disruptive conduct’ and ‘insubordination,’ and was particularly striking in the discipline of black girls. We also found that the District’s lack of adequate policies, training, and monitoring likely allowed this disparate treatment to go unchecked.”

The Justice Department also found that at one Wichita high school, black students were five times more likely than their white peers to receive disciplinary notices and five times more likely to be suspended as a result of a notice.

In several elementary and middle schools, black students were three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

The Justice Department also found that in reports of “insubordination” incidents across the district, black girls were three and a half times more likely than white girls to be described with stereotypical terms such as “attitude” and “drama.”

“In one such incident in which a black and white student fought, the black student was disciplined more severely than the white student, even though the black student was not more aggressive during the incident, neither student was injured, and the white student initiated the fight by using a racial slur,” investigators wrote. “In addition, black students in high schools in the district were referred to law enforcement for minor infractions, even though similarly situated white students were not referred for similar conduct. This included a black student referred to police for shoving another student to the ground during a game of tag during gym class, but no such referral was made when a white student in the same classroom engaged in similar conduct.”

The Justice Department also found that the district’s overuse of physical restraint and seclusion was discriminatory.

“The Department’s investigation also revealed that District staff frequently used restraint and seclusion in response to behaviors of students with disabilities,” the report states. “During the period covered by the study, the District reported 1,570 restraints and 1,450 seclusions. Almost all of these incidents—98 percent—involved students with disabilities. In fact, the only schools that had designated seclusion rooms were those that had special programs for students with emotional or behavioral disabilities.”

Additionally, the Department of Justice determined that the number of uses of restraint was likely underreported because, as we learned during the investigation, prior to the 2022–2023 school year, District staff routinely failed to report involuntary transportation of students as uses of restraint.

“Based on our investigation, we concluded that the majority of the restraints and seclusion used by the District were inappropriate under both District policy and generally accepted practice, which limits the use of restraints and seclusion to situations involving a ‘legitimate and immediate risk of physical harm.’”

“In practice, the District has used restraints and seclusion in its schools when there was no safety concern and instead enforced school rules, responded to refusals to follow staff directives, prevented students from leaving rooms or areas, and transported students. For example, restraints were used to remove a student who refused to remove his hat, to move a student who knocked over a trash can and refused to pick it up, and a student was secluded for peeling paint off a school wall.”

The District has entered into a settlement agreement that is intended to resolve most of the discrimination issues discussed in the report.

Educational discrimination persists in Wichita and across Kansas

It is especially disheartening to see discrimination in education in Wichita and across the state 70 years after the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of discrimination in education. Brown v. Board of Education.

Wichita schools discriminate against blacks in discipline, Justice Department findsIn 1954, Brown banned separate but equal schools for students of color. Today, in Kansas, minorities apparently have unequal educational opportunities in the same schools.

Across Kansas, just 12% of black students were proficient in math on the 2023 state assessment, compared with 17% of Latino students and 38% of white students. In Wichita, just 6% of black students, 10% of Latino students and 23% of white students are proficient in math.

The Legislature gives school districts more than $500 million each year for additional services for students at risk of academic failure, but state audits from 2019 and 2023 found the money is not being spent “in accordance with state law requirements.”