The end of busing in Indianapolis: 35 years later, a more segregated school system calls it quits

LaTonya Kirkland was a 14-year-old high school freshman the year a judge ordered her and her friends from Indianapolis’ East side to make a 20-minute bus ride to school.

She remembers the bus filled with kids — all of them black — pulling into Perry Meridian High School one morning in 1981. She remembers a dozen of her white classmates approaching the bus, their hands slapping against the yellow metal side panels. She remembers the way the bus started to rock as the white students slammed against the bus, and then:

“Splat!” Something hit the window. An egg.

Kirkland was terrified.

More than 30 years later, it wasn’t how the confrontation ended that has stuck with her — she thinks police escorted her and her friends into the school. It was the disorienting feeling of being hated for being black.

“We didn’t know what to do with the racism,” said Kirkland, who is now 49. She and her friends lived in a neighborhood where nearly everyone looked like them. Suddenly they were across the county, in a place where they weren’t welcome. “It was a first for us.”

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Kirkland and her friends were trailblazers — part of the first year of an experiment that saw thousands of kids bused from struggling Indianapolis neighborhoods to more affluent sections of Marion County for school. The buses — paid for by the state and Indianapolis Public Schools — rolled from 1981 until last month, when the court order mandating the busing expired.

Among the kids on the last bus was Kirkland’s daughter, LaShawn. The younger Kirkland, who graduated last month from Perry Township’s Southport High School, made the same daily journey her mother did from their Forest Manor neighborhood, though hers was a much less eventful trip than her mother’s had been, filled mostly with kids sleeping on their way to class.

Mother and daughter were on opposite ends of a painful chapter in Indianapolis history that started out with noble ambitions. The lawyers and advocates who fought for the city’s busing program believed it would give all Marion County kids the same access to quality schools. They aimed to reduce racial tension in a city that had a long history of official policies designed to keep people apart.

But 35 years after students began being bused to township schools, it’s not clear what the program achieved.

Indianapolis Public Schools elementary buildings are more segregated today than they were when the busing program began in 1981. Back then, just 4 percent of elementary schools had 75 percent or more students of one race — white or black. Today, after decades of departures by middle class families who’ve flocked to the suburbs, the percentage of segregated elementary schools in IPS is now up to 20 percent — five times more than when busing began.

Nearly all of the students in IPS today — 74 percent — are black or Hispanic. Most of the students enrolled in IPS schools — 71 percent — are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. And while IPS has a handful of high performing schools, kids who are poor and black or Hispanic are more likely to attend a school with perpetually low test scores — a sign that kids aren’t getting the resources they need to succeed.

Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI are teaming up for a joint project to examine why inequality and segregation continue in Indianapolis 60 years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed “separate but equal” schools — and solutions that could lead to change.

The answer is complicated, cutting across economic and racial lines. The project will examine how the city deliberately segregated its schools prior to 1981, making choices driven by intolerance and politics; why some current strategies to combat re-segregation, such as magnet schools, haven’t lived up to the hype; and how one school made integration among students of different ethnic backgrounds and income levels possible by making a committed effort.

Busing was well-intentioned, LaTonya Kirkland said. It meant that her children were able to get a better education than they could if they’d stayed close to home. Over the last 35 years, the busing program created opportunities for students to attend better-funded schools that have had access to more resources — less teacher turnover, higher salaries and better-maintained buildings.

But as Kirkland sees it, busing bears some of the blame for what’s happened to her neighborhood.

Looking around Forest Manor today, there’s not much left of the neighborhood she remembers from her youth — and it’s hard not to point a finger, at least in part, at busing.

By many accounts, black neighborhoods had to sacrifice more than white neighborhoods for integration. Only black students were bused out to the townships — white students were not ordered to come into IPS or to help remedy the divide. Neighborhood schools in Forest Manor and throughout the city have closed as students have left, leaving families confused about where to go and dissatisfied with the few options they have.

“It did a disservice to that community,” Kirkland said. “I can honestly say I would not move there now.”

This mother is, however, grateful that her daughter had an opportunity to thrive in Perry. The township earned an A grade on its state report card in 2015. That’s compared to IPS, where the district earn a D in 2015, up from an F in 2014.

“I’ve seen it from the beginning to the end,” LaTonya said, glancing over at her daughter in the chair next to her. “I know what it felt like to be sitting on that bus in ’81. And I know what it feels like to be so proud to be graduating this one beside me in 2016.”

* * *

In history books, the start of school desegregation usually begins with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, but Indiana got there a bit sooner — or so it seemed.

In 1949, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law requiring the state to begin integrating schools. Other northern states had passed similar laws, but Indianapolis moved especially slowly, making mostly token steps toward integration. Not much changed until 1968, when the U.S. Department of Justice filed the first of what would be a series of lawsuits against Indianapolis Public Schools alleging intentional discrimination against black children.

Discrimination wasn’t hard to prove — the city of Indianapolis merged most public services with Marion County in 1970 but notably excluded schools from the merger. That created the city’s odd mix of 11 separate school districts, 10 of which at the time served mostly white townships and small cities. It was a structure that kept black children isolated in schools with fewer resources, higher teacher turnover and less experienced teachers.

U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Dillin found IPS guilty of racial segregation and ultimately ordered busing between districts in 1979 — busing within Indianapolis Public Schools had already been underway since the early 1970s.

The order took effect in 1981 in time for LaTonya Kirkland’s first year of high school. Her neighborhood was included in the area drawn up for kids to be bused to Perry Township — and it was mandatory that the kids go.

At 14, Kirkland was among more than 6,300 students who were transported from their IPS neighborhoods to Decatur, Franklin, Lawrence, Perry, Warren and Wayne townships that first year in 1981.

“I don’t think I had been that far south of Indianapolis in my life,” Kirkland said. “(It was) probably a couple weeks into the school year before it got really violent.”

Of the townships that absorbed city kids, Perry was perhaps the toughest to integrate. It was 98 percent white and did not border any black neighborhoods. Some families had moved there to avoid integration with blacks, which historian and former Butler University professor Emma Lou Thornbrough details in her 1993 work, “The Indianapolis Story: School Segregation and Desegregation in a Northern City.”

Black enrollment in the township exploded overnight as the buses began arriving. There were just 62 black students enrolled out of about 10,000 students in 1980. The next year, the number jumped to about 1,500 as integration efforts began.

A story from the Indianapolis Star in 1981 described Perry Township as the one district where tensions turned to violence. It describes an incident in October of that year in which a black student was injured by flying glass when a bus window was broken by angry white students.

"A youth got out of a blue Chevrolet Nova and shattered one of the bus windows with a set of karate sticks ... According to the security report, the glass struck several students."

Indianapolis Star, Oct. 17, 1981

“The first year was probably one of the worst experiences of my life, if I can be honest,” Kirkland said.

She only stayed at Perry Meridian one year. Her family moved to another home in the neighborhood, and she was reassigned to Arlington High School, in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Thousands of students remained with the program — but not for long. By the early 1990s, courts across the country were scrapping busing systems. Indianapolis followed, beginning a phase-out of busing in 1998 when several districts argued in court that their student populations had become diverse enough to exempt them from the busing program.

The reduction in busing has led to a corresponding increase in segregation, said Kevin Brown, an Indiana University law professor who has studied desegregation.

“Once you (terminate a desegregation decree) then the resegregation is going to occur,” Brown said. “If for no other reason than people want to go back to neighborhood schools for transportation and to be close to their kids.”

* * *

The last class of kids bused from IPS to township schools was just about 50 kids — including LaShawn Kirkland and roughly 30 others who took the bus to Perry Township.

As a mother, LaTonya Kirkland was initially hesitant to send her children to Perry Township given her painful memories from her own time there. She didn’t want them to go through what she had.

But LaShawn’s experience, from kindergarten until her graduation this year, bears little resemblance to her mother’s.

Perry Township has changed dramatically since 1981, shaped by demographic forces as families have moved around the region. It’s hard to know if busing played a role in the changes that have come to Perry Township, but it’s clear that it’s a much more diverse place today than it was three decades ago.

The district has experienced a huge influx of Burmese refugees who have settled in the township in the past 10 years, and its schools have gained a reputation for serving them well. Today, 53.5 percent of Perry Township students are white, 20.9 percent are Asian, 14 percent are Hispanic and 6.4 percent are black.

“It was a completely different township (for LaShawn),” Kirkland said. “There were a lot of faces that looked like hers. There were a lot of kids in our neighborhood who went there.”

LaShawn said she hasn’t had any problems in high school, but when she was younger she often felt unwelcome — classmates who knew she didn’t live in the district would ask why she was even there.

It’s made her feel like she’s always had to prove herself.

“It’s not bullying, but you get stereotyped for where you come from,” LaShawn said. “You want to show the other students that you are just as good as them.”

But the school has made a point of supporting its Forest Manor students, who travel about 20 minutes each day to and from Perry Township.

The district assigned Louis Norris, who lives in Forest Manor, to keep tabs on the IPS students. As Perry Township’s associate director for student services, he made it a priority to see that every Forest Manor student received a diploma.

“(We wanted students) to feel comfortable and to see someone who looked like them, who talked like them,” said Norris, who said he regularly knocked on kids’ doors to make sure they were on time for their early morning bus ride. “They call me the mayor of 25th street.”

Now that she’s graduated, LaShawn plans to enroll in the pharmacy program at Indiana State next fall. She hopes eventually to transfer to Purdue.

It was a similar story in Franklin Township, where Franklin Central High School senior Treyvon Brown said there weren’t many problems associated with busing. He’s gone to school in the Franklin Township his whole life, bused about 30 minutes southwest from near the state fairgrounds in South Broad Ripple.

He and his friends really didn’t care why they were riding the bus.

“I didn’t know why,” Brown, 17, said. “I just thought it was normal because when I first started school I didn’t have any friends, so I got on the bus and I made friends. I didn’t know where I was going to go to school exactly.”

Brown, who wants to eventually study genetics at Ball State University, said on the whole, his classmates in mostly white Franklin Township are easy-going. Race isn’t a huge issue. When he finally learned about the desegregation busing program from his mom in fifth grade, he thought it made sense.

“I do think it’s a good thing because different people, they grew up with different things than I grew up with,” Brown said. “And we learn stuff from each other.”

* * *

Across the country, busing has mostly been rendered a relic of history with a mixed legacy that shows improvement in racial relations in some parts of the country. Other parts of the country are left with the same divisions and inequities that led to busing in the first place.

“A lot of (desegregation busing programs) were kept in position for 30 years, particularly in the South,” said Gary Orfield, the co-founder of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “They were sustainable, especially when they were metropolitan-wide.”

Indianapolis’ long phase-out probably meant that, compared to most cities, it was more integrated for a longer time, IU’s Brown said.

But now schools in the center city are resegregating, growing more isolated in terms of race and income. Part of that is because the district has shrunk, losing about 30,000 students between 1981 and 2015. The students who left were more likely to be white and more affluent.

It’s a different story in township schools. Like Perry Township, many of Marion County’s smaller districts have grown more diverse as more families, especially white families, have moved to surrounding districts. In general, there are far fewer mostly white schools now than in 1992, the oldest state data available. Then, 69 percent of elementary schools were segregated and mostly white. In 2015, just 10 percent of schools were segregated.

But where segregation remains, it has become more entrenched.

As in urban districts across the country, so few white students live in the geographic area served by Indianapolis Public Schools that it’s not even clear that busing today would have much of an impact — at least not if it was only restricted to Marion County. Only a busing program that involved surrounding counties like Hamilton and Johnson, which are mostly white, could achieve diversity today, but busing programs that cross city borders have been blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The most important thing districts can do is make both racial and economic integration a priority, Orfield said.

He pointed to efforts in Louisville, Kentucky, Charlotte, N.C., and Connecticut as examples of progress. If schools want to to promote integration, first they need to make it part of their mission and set specific goals.

For example, they could make plans to recruit diverse students to segregated schools, or offer preference to kids who speak other languages or come from certain neighborhoods. They can also redraw boundary lines, change school locations and assist families with transportation.

But fewer school district leaders are thinking about these strategies today. In Indianapolis, there are concerns about test scores, school safety and funding, but school board members rarely address segregation head-on.

“It’s not rocket science,” Orfield said. “You have to decide to do it. If you don’t decide to do it the default is segregation.”

* * *

In the Forest Manor area, now that busing is gone, nearby school options have dwindled for LaShawn’s younger neighbors.

IPS schools have closed in the decades since busing, while charter schools on the city’s east side have spread. Current options include a few low-performing IPS schools and several charter schools that have higher test scores but still remain unpopular among some area residents. It’s another factor they fear will further exacerbate the area’s decline.

For LaTonya, now that LaShawn has graduated, there’s not much keeping her in Forest Manor either. She, too, expects she’ll soon join the exodus from the east side that has already irreparably changed the streets she remembers from her youth.

Driving through the neighborhood on an afternoon this winter, Kirkland pointed to once vibrant family homes that are now boarded-up rental properties. Not a block went by where Kirkland couldn’t name an aunt who lived there, a friend she remembers visiting or the church where she grew up. But today, her drive takes her by shuttered storefronts and once-bustling sidewalks that now see only occasional passers-by.

As much as she thinks busing played a role in the neighborhood’s decline, it was the main thing that has kept her and her family in Forest Manor until today. Now, with her three children done with school and the busing program officially ended, she sees no reason for the next generation to remain.

“The education was worth it to stay,” she said. “I’d encourage my kids to live there if they could raise their kids and send their kids to Perry Township. But because they can’t, I say, ‘You’re going to live here and then not come back.’ And that’s unfortunate.”

Find more stories in our “Schools Divided” series here.