South Bend Tribune staff writer YaSHEKIA SMALLS reports in-depth a racial discrimination case that alleges the school corporation poising itself against a biracial student.
MISHAWAKA — A Penn High School mother has filed a racial discrimination complaint against the school corporation, alleging that her biracial freshman daughter was unfairly treated by high school administrators after a fight in April.
Ann Hostetler, who is white, argues that the school treated her daughter Kelsey West differently from the white female student with whom she fought after the student allegedly called Kelsey the n-word. Although her daughter was suspended for five days, Hostetler believed the other student was not, she said.
“No kid should be treated like this,” said Hostetler, who filed her complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission through the South Bend Human Rights Commission.
In a June 4 response to Hostetler’s complaint, attorneys Edward Sullivan and Amy Steketee, of Baker and Daniels — on behalf of the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp. — said the district admits that a “daughter” was “suspended for five days because of her involvement in a physical altercation, and that the White female student referenced in the Complaint was not suspended.”
The names of the daughter and mother were redacted in the written response — which spans about 10 pages — for confidentiality reasons, said Teresa Carroll, director of communications.
Penn High School parent Sherry Maike, whose white daughter Paige Greene also was involved in the fight and was suspended, also filed a discrimination complaint against the school district with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. P-H-M, which received the complaint around June 12, has 20 days to respond to the complaint dated June 6, Carroll said.
“There were several students involved, and the students were disciplined,” Carroll said. “We always take disciplinary action against any student using racial slurs or using any other kind of harassment language.”
According to the complaint Hostetler filed in late April, the white female student “spit on Kelsey then proceeded to” use profanity and call her a racial slur during their altercation. Fifteen-year-old Kelsey said the tussle occurred after lunch on April 12 outside the high school cafeteria.
The fight was not an isolated incident for Kelsey this past school year, she said, saying how a white male student at the school in January allegedly called her the n-word in the lunchroom one day.
The boy also insulted Kelsey’s white friend Paige for socializing with a black student, 14-year-old Paige told The Tribune.
Kelsey and Paige also claim that the white female student with whom they fought on April 12 first sparked the problem when she threw a water bottle in their direction two days earlier in the lunchroom.
A police report filed on April 13 by school resource officer David Sult, of the St. Joseph County Police Department, explains that on April 10 “a plastic bottle was thrown and words were exchanged during lunch between the two groups.”
Dean of Students Barbara Schalliol, according to the police report, was advised of the situation and was monitoring the lunchroom on April 12 — the day the fight occurred in the hallway outside the cafeteria. The school does not have cameras that can actually monitor that part of the hallway, Carroll said.
“I’m sure there are records of a number of incidences,” Carroll said when asked about the alleged January name-calling incident and the more recent water bottle situation. “But it does not do me any good because we can’t share that information.”
In its written response to the Indiana Civil Rights Commission complaint, the district denied the allegations and stated that discipline of the complainant “was fully consistent with the procedures of the PHMSC and did not discriminate” based on “race or for any other unlawful reason.”
P-H-M also said its investigation of the fight “disclosed insufficient independent evidence to conclude that” the white female student spit or made any racial slurs. Although suspension was not warranted for the white female student because the evidence revealed that she “was not the aggressor in the fight,” the student was “disciplined in a manner that was appropriate for her involvement in the fight.”
In an unrelated but similar incident, Maike said, her daughter Paige more recently was suspended for 10 days after another white female student on May 17 kept taunting Paige’s white friend and then turned on Paige and got in her face. Paige told the girl to get out of her face and walked away. Still, Paige was suspended through June 1 while the other two girls were both suspended for three days each, Maike said.
But Paige in late May ultimately was expelled for the rest of the school year after that second incident. She is allowed to attend summer school and will likely enter Pennway Alternative School next year to catch up on her class credits, Maike said.
According to the police report, the April 12 fight happened about 1 p.m. and involved the spitting of gum, pushing, kicking and punching. The Tribune obtained a copy of the police report, but the students’ names were redacted.
After the fight, Kelsey was suspended for five days — from April 16 to 20 — after she “admitted hitting another student in the face,” according to a disciplinary referral signed by Dean Schalliol. Paige was suspended for five days as well, Maike said.
Sult requested that the police report be sent to the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center for review of possible charges. Catherine Wilson, director of media relations for the St. Joseph County prosecutor’s office, said Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Anthony Ennis was handling the case. But juvenile delinquency proceedings are confidential unless they fit the narrow exceptions described in Indiana law, she said.
Both Kelsey’s and Paige’s mothers believe the high school was biased in the witnesses it selected for its investigation of the April 12 fight.
Carroll, however, said Penn administrators interviewed witnesses in the incident and “follow our handbook. We allow all sides to be heard” in the disciplinary process.
According to P-H-M’s response, a group of seven to 10 student eyewitnesses was interviewed. Deans Schalliol and Shannan Lindzy — who investigated the incident and imposed the punishment — relied “not only on the accounts of students involved in the fight but also on the reports of other student eyewitnesses.”
“The reports from the three students who were directly involved in the fight were inconsistent on several key points (including the key question of whether any racial slur was uttered),” according to the response.
No student witness reported seeing someone spit gum or hearing racial slurs, the response said. Carroll explained that discipline is “based on the individual circumstances revolving around that particular incident,” and sometimes parents and/or students don’t always agree with the consequences issued.
In addition, the two groups of students who could not get along were moved to opposite ends of the cafeteria for the remainder of the school year, Carroll said.
After a complaint is filed with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, the case is assigned to an investigator, said Da Mica O’Bryant, assistant director for external affairs with the commission. After the response to a complaint is filed, the commission’s investigation simply continues, O’Bryant said.
Michael Johnson is the investigator assigned to Hostetler’s complaint, according to a commission document dated May 7. O’Bryant, who could not disclose the status of the investigation, said a proper investigation usually takes a minimum of three to six months. Education cases can sometimes take longer, as records involving minors are usually harder to access, O’Bryant said.
Hostetler said she would like to see “everyone that handled the situation lose their job.” She also would like to see Kelsey receive a written apology and greater emphasis on diversity training and education for staff and students, she said.
O’Bryant believes the number of education-related discrimination complaints filed with the commission has steadily been on the rise: The agency saw 29 last year — a jump from 17 in 2005. The commission has already received 15 complaints so far this year, O’Bryant said.
“I think the general public is beginning to be educated about what remedies are available to them,” she said.
Another complaint was filed against P-H-M in 1998, but it was an employment case in which a “no probable cause” finding was issued in 2002, O’Bryant said. No other education cases have been filed with the ICRC against the high school or the corporation, she said.
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights also received a complaint from Hostetler on April 26, but the office closed the complaint May 7 because it was already filed with the ICRC, said Jim Bradshaw of the U.S. Department of Education press office.
Still, the number of education-related complaints filed nationally has increased recently — from 5,044 in fiscal year 2004, to 5,533 in 2005 and then to 5,805 in 2006, Bradshaw said.
“We really don’t have any observations on that trend,” Bradshaw said, “although the OCR (Office for Civil Rights) does maintain a Web site with information on student rights and how the public can file complaints.”
In February, P-H-M received a complaint from a black employee who filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging discrimination on the basis of race, color and sex. The case is still outstanding, Carroll said.
The district denied The Tribune’s request for the employee’s complaint based on the provisions of the Access to Public Records Act. The complaint is part of the employee’s confidential personnel file and remains exempt from disclosure while the matter is being contested before the EEOC, said Mary Lou Watson, administrative assistant to the superintendent of P-H-M.
An employee also filed a complaint against the district in January 2005, alleging sex discrimination. The complaint was dismissed by the EEOC, Carroll said.
In addition, the corporation in December 2000 had a complaint filed against it on behalf of a student through the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. The student questioned whether P-H-M was making proper accommodations for disabled students, but the office found that there was no violation, Carroll said.
This past year was the first school year that the diversity club at Penn High School — of which 91 percent of the student body was white during the 2006-2007 school year — was inactive, Carroll said. The reasons: The school last fall replaced homeroom resource period with study halls throughout the day, making it difficult for clubs to meet during the school day.
Also, a couple of the club’s active leaders graduated last spring, and “interest in that club waned,” Carroll said. Because Paige and Kelsey were freshmen, they never had the opportunity to participate in the diversity club, Hostetler said.
“That should just be mandatory in a school like that,” Hostetler said, “where you know the minority is much less than the majority.”
Although “we’re not always successful,” Carroll said of preventing discrimination at the school, the corporation works to promote a safe and nondiscriminatory environment. The district, according to its response, has enacted a vigorous anti-harassment policy. Penn students at the beginning of each school year also receive a student handbook containing the equal education opportunity and nondiscrimination policy.
In addition, school officials and students have partnered with the Anti-Defamation League to provide activities that promote tolerance. Students can file complaints of harassment in the main office or report it anonymously through the P-H-M Partnership Plan as well, the response said.
Kelsey and Paige in April started Operation Color Blind and launched a Web site at nocolor.wetpaint.com to raise awareness against racism, discrimination and harassment.
Kelsey will not attend Penn High School again next year, Hostetler said, although she is not yet sure where her daughter will finish high school.
In a letter Grissom Middle School social studies teacher James Augustine wrote April 26 on Kelsey’s behalf, he described her as a pleasant and cooperative student who was a “very intelligent young lady.”
“She was very active in school functions, volunteering for many community service activities such as diversity training and talking to minority students,” Augustine wrote. “Kelsey was an outstanding example of what is needed to help bridge any racial gaps that exist in today’s society. I often used Kelsey to help keep peace between groups of kids.”