Merrillville High School and Crown Point High School sit nine miles apart from one another in Lake County, Indiana. Both serving a student population of over 2,000 each, their racial and socioeconomic demographics put the two schools at opposite ends of the spectrum. Merrillville, located in a more urban district and praised for its diversity, has a student body primarily consisting of students of color, with 66.2% Black students and 18% Hispanic/Latinx students; in contrast, Crown Point’s student body is 76.5% white.* There is an approximate $18,000 median income difference between the two cities, with a student at Merrillville almost three times more likely to be economically disadvantaged than a student at Crown Point.
While both high schools have long-standing ‘A’ state grades, Merrillville’s student population has slowly declined over the past two years as the region has experienced a “white flight” toward the wealthier suburbs—something that the area experienced during the later half of the Great Migration. Between 2000 and 2019, the town of Merrillville lost about one-third of its white population while the Black and Hispanic population have both grown substantially (19.64% and 6.75% respectively). Meanwhile, Crown Point’s enrollment has risen 5.6% from 2784 to 2940 students in a three-year time period (2018-2021).
Continuing racial demographic changes throughout the past two decades have shifted some Northwest Indiana residents’ perception of the school. Brenden Perez transferred from Merrillville to Crown Point in 2014, and recalls the stigmas associated with being an Asian-Latino student coming from Merrillville.
“[Crown Point students asked] ‘You were a part of a gang, right? We heard that everyone in Merrillville is a part of a gang,’” Perez said. “I always felt like I stood out and that people always looked at me…My nickname was ‘brown kid.’”
But these seemingly completely different worlds sitting just across town from one another have at least one thing in common: students of color are more likely to be reprimanded than their white counterparts—a trend shown in schools across the country. According to the Indiana Department of Education, multiracial, Black, Native American and Hispanic students at Crown Point had higher in-school suspension rates (21.7%, 21.3%, 18.2%, 15.3%, respectively) compared to the school’s overall suspension rate (10.2%) in the 2018-2019 school year. Asian and white students received fewer in-school suspensions (9.6% and 8.5% respectively), although Asian students make up only about 2% of the student body while white students make up 76.5%, even though all minority groups together only account for 23.6% of the student population.
Similarly, students of color at Merrillville are also more likely to be disciplined; more specifically, Hispanic students, who account for only 18.3% of the student body, received a disproportionate amount of disciplinary actions, receiving 25% of in-school suspensions and 17.7% of out-of-school suspensions. Merrillville gave out almost four times as many disciplinary actions than Crown Point throughout the year, at 2,541 and 682 respectively; Merrillville’s disciplinary actions in all categories are higher than the Indiana state average.
During the 2018-2019 academic year, Merrillville had about four times the amount of safety and disciplinary incidents as Crown Point; Crown Point, however, had 52 school-related arrests while Merrillville had none in this particular academic year.
As a Merrillville student at that time and now a senior at Indiana University Bloomington, Anya Johnson did not always recognize these instances as problems, but normal occurrences that should be expected.
“I learned more about my experience after I left high school. I didn’t realize that the way Merrillville operates with a zero-tolerance policy is the same framework as a school-to-prison pipeline,” Johnson said.
Research shows that Black students are often perceived as more harmful than their white counterparts. Within the schools themselves, narratives of how students of color behave are often perpetuated more than the actions of their white counterparts.
“You only heard about fights with Black and brown kids, but never about anything that involves white students,” Perez, an Asian-Latino alumnus of Crown Point, said.
Research also shows that the presence of police officers in schools can have a negative impact on students of color. Perez recalls distinctly different experiences with the presence of officers at the two schools.
“At Crown Point, there are two police cars outside of the school in the morning and maybe one security guard in the entire school,” Perez said. “But at Merrillville, I remember seeing security guards trying to talk to students all day, everyday, everywhere.”
As a new transfer student, Perez noticed plenty of differences between Merrillville and Crown Point, from the ways the students interacted with each other to how administrators responded to situations. A particular situation arose following a regional sports game.
“The theme for a Merrillville versus Crown Point game was a ‘blackout.’ I was thinking that we’d wear all black. [Crown Point students] pulled up with fake grills in their mouths and big, heavy ‘Flavor Flav’ type chains. They went out of their way to dress as this caricature,” he said.
Perez recalls the administrative response to the incident to be more of a “slap on the wrist”: an end-of-the-day announcement by the principal that reprimanded “disrespectful costuming,” mentioning similar instances at games held between Crown Point and other regional schools—the most striking being the Merrillville costumes as “pimps” and Hobart, another high school in the region, as “construction workers,” presumably because of the school’s substantial Hispanic population.
Students also perceived differences in the reinforcement dress codes; Johnson remembers the dress code being enforced strictly at Merrillville, especially for students of color, but Perez doesn’t recall harsh enforcement of the dress code at Crown Point.
“The entire concept of policing and sexualization was very different [from Merrillville],” he said.
In my own senior year of high school, I was sent to the office for wearing a tied, black hair scarf on my head—a clothing item often discouraged alongside others that represent Black culture. I was threatened with having to leave school for the day and even almost lost the opportunity to walk across the graduation stage in June 2017. It wasn’t until the assistant principal, who was a Black woman, came into the office that I was free to return to my third period class.
Disproportionate disciplinary action has repercussions beyond graduation; research shows that students are more likely to be arrested or incarcerated later and less likely to attend a four-year college at high schools that use referrals as their main source of punishment. In fact, a study found that only 10% of young men in California who were suspended or expelled enrolled in a four-year college.
But students at Merrillville do note that the school offers opportunities not available at other majority minority-serving schools—and that resources are being added to increase the likelihood of post-graduation success.
“I believe that Merrillville, in comparison to other predominantly Black schools in the area, was a very enriched school in the culture of bringing opportunities to students,” Johnson said.
College preparation resources, such as dual enrollment and AP exams, remain consistent between both schools, and other public schools across the state of Indiana follow similar guidelines. Most AP exams are offered for free (for certain subjects) and dual enrollment courses are available at a discounted price. These programs greatly benefit students who are economically disadvantaged (61.2% of Merrillville students and 19.9% of Crown Point students).
But even with these resources and even though Merrillville has a relatively small student-teacher ratio compared to Crown Point, only 40% of Merrillville students are adequately prepared for postsecondary pursuits.
With the recent addition of a College and Career Counselor at Merrillville, students now have a liaison that advocates for them and assists them in the process of applying for college or further preparing for their career endeavors.
Furthermore, since 2017, a change to the curriculum for the State of Indiana has added options to obtain certifications and/or credentials from apprenticeships, trade school, etc. By implementing this into the curriculum, it gives students with various interests an opportunity to leave high school with a plan, or at least a starting point. Some Merrillville alumni have created their own post-secondary opportunities by attending cosmetology school and eventually even founding their own organizations, like the ASW Foundation, Inc.
Students and the community at large recognize the opportunities Merrillville provides to grow socially and interact with people from varying backgrounds. But while Johnson and others had a “very Black” and “diverse” experience, they also still saw Crown Point as the school that may lead to a brighter future.
“If it wasn’t for Merrillville, I wouldn’t have the social skills that I have today,” Perez said. “Going to Crown Point, it was like a racial awakening; however, Crown Point provided opportunity for the future.”
Merrillville and Crown Point are just two of the many school districts (oftentimes side-by-side in urban-suburban divides) that struggle with disproportionate disciplinary action for students of color; the issue, however, is a complex one to address, and one that is a result of decades of policies reinforcing unequal practices like de facto segregation and redlining. While progressive administrations have implemented policies to address racial disparities in school discipline, other administrations have just as quickly reversed them, leaving students’ futures in the hands of politicians. Especially in majority minority-serving schools, harmful stereotyping and disciplinary actions can mean the difference between going to college or not—or getting a job or not. And for students already struggling, a good start may be the necessary push they need to pave a better path for their futures.
*General student demographics were based on the 2019-2020 academic year, as this data set was the only one publicly available from the Indiana Department of Education at the time of writing. The data sets used for disciplinary actions, including breakdowns by race and ethnicity, all came from the Indiana Department of Education from the 2018-2019 school year. Due to the impact that COVID-19 had on the latter half of the 2019-2020 academic year, the 2018-2019 academic year better represents an average year at both schools examined throughout the article.