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DOJ report: Wichita Public Schools disproportionally discipline Black, disabled students

Hugo Phan
/
KMUW

In a settlement agreement with the Justice Department, the Wichita district plans to create new policies and eliminate others, including its use of seclusion.

An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Wichita school district discriminated against students based on race and disability.

In a report released Tuesday, the department said Black students were disciplined more frequently and more severely than white students. Black girls were particularly singled out for offenses such as insubordination.

The department said the district also inappropriately secluded and restrained students with disabilities.

“Black students inside our nation’s public schools should not have to face discipline or a referral to law enforcement because of their race. And students with disabilities should not have to experience the trauma of seclusion or improper restraint,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “Schools in our communities should not be a place of fear or mistrust.”

In a settlement agreement with the Justice Department, the Wichita district plans to create new policies and eliminate others, including its use of seclusion.

“The point for me is that we can and will do better moving forward, right?” Wichita schools superintendent Kelly Bielefeld said during a news conference Tuesday to discuss the report.

“We do have a challenge in front of us that we can improve. We can help solve this and become more equitable as a school district.”

The investigation began in 2020 and ran through the end of the 2023 school year. District officials said they don’t know what prompted the investigation.

The school district said it plans to unveil a new student code of conduct in January. It also plans to formalize a standard dress code.

The Justice Department said it reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed dozens of people. During a site visit in March 2023, it toured and interviewed administrators and staff at 17 schools. Those included schools with programs that serve students with disabilities, and schools with security officers.

Among its conclusions, the department found:

  • Black students were disciplined more frequently and more severely than white students who engaged in similar conduct. This was most evident for subjective offenses, such as “disruptive conduct” and “insubordination.” That was especially true for Black girls.
  • Black students were more likely to receive disciplinary referrals and suspensions than white students. They also were more likely to be referred to law enforcement.
  • Black girls were more often disciplined for being insubordinate and for dress code violations.
  • The district lacked policies and procedures to ensure nondiscrimination. 
  • The district frequently relied on restraint and seclusion when responding to the conduct of students with disabilities. During the investigation, the district reported more than 3,000 incidents of restraint or seclusion. Of those, 98% involved a student with a disability. 
  • The district used restraint and seclusion when there was no safety threat, but to instead enforce school rules.

As part of its agreement with the Justice Department, the Wichita district outlined steps it will take to better serve students.
Those steps include:

  • Ending the use of seclusion – where a student is placed alone in a room or area – in district schools.
  • Not using physical restraint unless a student’s behavior poses a danger of physical harm. 
  • Implementing a new student code of conduct in January.
  • Standardizing a new dress code for district schools.
  • Not involving a school resource officer in an incident of student misbehavior unless there is a risk of physical harm, or a criminal offense is occuring. 
  • Creating an Office of Behavior Management Support and Oversight to better help students with disabilities.
Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.
Kylie Cameron (she/her) is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, Kylie was a digital producer at KWCH, and served as editor in chief of The Sunflower at Wichita State. You can follow her on Twitter @bykyliecameron.