Fayette schools criminalizing, punishing Black students disproportionately, groups say

Valarie Honeycutt Spears
·6 min read

The Fayette County Public Schools district is “policing, criminalizing, and punishing students” of color at disproportionate rates, officials of three advocacy groups announced this week.

The national Grassroots Law Project, NAACP of Lexington, and the Kentucky-based Institute for Compassion in Justice officials said that data obtained through a district open records request and the Kentucky Department of Education School Report Card shows the school district spends more on law enforcement in schools than on mental health and student support services combined even when school has mostly been remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These troubling findings clearly show that the district is punishing, policing, and criminalizing its most vulnerable students,” said Shaun King, Grassroots Law Project Co-Founder and a nationally known activist. “We must question the outsized role of police in our schools, and build a community where the first line of response are people who are trained to help young people -- teachers, nurses, counselors, and mental health providers.”

The NAACP also raised concerns four years ago about the disproportionate discipline of black students in Fayette schools.

This week, advocacy groups said from 2017-2020, Black students were subjected to expulsion and suspension at a higher percentage than their racial representation of 23 percent in the district. The data shows Black students represent 35 percent of expulsions and 42 percent of suspensions.

They said the same is true for disciplinary actions involving law enforcement, where Black students are affected more than other students.

A statement from the groups said that in Fayette County in the 2019-20 school year, Black students made up only 23 percent of the student population, yet 62 percent of incidents involving school police, 86 percent of arrests, and 92 percent of charges brought were among Black students.

This trend holds from 2017-2020, all the years for which data are available, according to the groups.

The groups say the data shows Hispanic students were expelled and biracial students were suspended at rates higher than their overall representation. Students with disabilities also dealt with police at rates higher than their overall representation, they said.

After the three groups issued a joint news release, Fayette school officials on Tuesday acknowledged that there are persistent disparities in disciplinary outcomes for students of color in the Fayette County Public Schools.

“There has been no attempt to hide the persistent disparities in disciplinary outcomes for students of color in the Fayette County Public Schools. On the contrary, we have put measures in place to address the issues, and actively monitor trends in our data to determine if the actions taken are producing results,” the district statement said.

But the district disputed that it spends more on law enforcement than it does on mental health and student support services combined.

“The assertion that Fayette County Public Schools spends more on law enforcement than it does on mental health and student support services combined is absolutely untrue. In fact, the district’s current budget includes $5.7 million for law enforcement and $18.7 million for mental health and student support services, the district statement said.

Fayette district officials said the groups incorrectly compared spending from all funding sources on law enforcement with just one funding source for mental health and student support services, which is not an accurate reflection of the true investment made.

Fayette district officials said it appears portions of the student discipline data provided through an open records request were misinterpreted by the groups. The total given in the groups’ release about the number of suspensions and expulsions are incorrect, based on that misinterpretation, district officials said.

District officials provided numbers Tuesday that said during the 2016-17 school year, Black students were 4.01 times more likely to be suspended than white students. During the 18-19 school year, that number was down to 3.38. Hispanic students in FCPS in the 2016-17 school year were 1.42 times more likely to be suspended. In 2018-19, the ratio was down to 1.31.

Data from the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years are incomparable due to the pandemic, district officials said.

“While we are disappointed that disproportionalities remain, and discouraged that the decrease is not more dramatic, this slow, downward trend indicates that we are putting forth efforts to make change that is systematic,” the district statement said.

On Tuesday night, Tricia Busch, spokeswoman for the advocacy groups said research and policy analysts reviewed the data the groups received: “If the data can more clearly be set forth, we would welcome it from the district.”

“The district claims in their statement that the current budget includes $5.7 million for law enforcement and $18.7 million for mental health and student support services, yet in the very data from our public record request, the budget for this year included $7.0 million projected for law enforcement, $1.1 million projected for student support services and $3.5 million projected for mental health services,” Busch said.

“And according to the data FCPS shared in their response to our data release, African-American students were still 3.38 times more likely than white students to be suspended during the 2018-2019 school year -- a number that is troubling regardless.”

Fayettte district officials said there had been an exponential increase in employee training to address bias.

“FCPS fully acknowledges and denounces the systemic racism and implicit bias that has gnawed at the soul of our nation since 1619. It will take time, consistent effort and an honest reckoning with institutionalized discrimination that goes beyond the walls of the schoolhouse to yield the true change our children deserve,” the district statement said.

Busch said it will take more than the district acknowledging and denouncing systemic racism:

“It takes action that will produce change, as we call for in our recommendations: reducing the number of law enforcement officers in all high schools and investing in mental health supports and after-school programs that work,” she said. The groups are also recommending that the district eliminate law enforcement from all elementary and middle schools.

District officials say the call to eliminate police officers from district elementary and middle schools is at odds with state law that requires one school resource officer for each campus.

Since the adoption of the school safety tax in 2018, a total of 57 additional mental health professionals have been hired, the district statement said.

During that same time period, district officials said they have added 27 officers in schools for a total of 59 school-based officers, three lieutenants and a chief. “Our Fayette County Public Schools Police Department is unique in the nation because it takes community policing to another level -- our officers are part of our schools, “district officials said.

Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, Executive Director for the Institute for Compassion in Justice and Litigation Director for the NAACP of Lexington, told the Herald-Leader that the groups examined what the school district is doing with respect to helping students in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We would submit that the climate we are creating with this really large increase in the presence of law enforcement in our schools is an attitude akin to a penal institution, rather than an open, exciting intellectually stimulating and emotionally supportive educational environment,” she said.

Micheline Karenga, a member of the student group Counselors Over Cops FCPS said the “increased reliance on police presence at schools is at the cost of our mental health.”