Indiana's public access counselor recently ruled against the West Lafayette Community School Corp. in a dispute over open door laws regarding its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force Committee.
The counselor, Luke Britt, argued that task force meetings should have been open to the public, and therefore the task force violated Indiana state law by holding them privately.
School corporation officials reached this week say they disagree.
"It's an opinion," said Alan Karpick, president of the WLCSC board of school trustees. "And it's our opinion that that opinion's incorrect."
The WLCSC insists that because the the task force is an "administrative entity" rather than a board committee, open door laws don't apply, according to the ruling. Britt maintains that because it's a "board, commission, council or other body of a public agency which takes official action upon public business," the task force is also subject to open door laws.
Britt regularly rules on cases regarding public access laws. And although his decisions aren't legally binding, a ruling from the public access counselor gives a party stronger support if the issue is taken to court. Unless a lawsuit is filed, though, little can be done to change the the corporation's practice.
"The school board doesn't act transparently," WLCSC alumna Ila Chaubey said in a Zoom call this week. "They're blatantly violating Indiana law. I think you can tell from their response that they don't care about transparency."
Chaubey, along with Daniel Afolabi and roughly 2,000 other WLCSC alumni, set into motion what eventually led to the task force when they formed WL Care, a group dedicated to anti-racism reform within the WLCSC. The group sent an open letter to then-superintendent Rocky Killian, who has since retired, and the board of directors on June 18, 2020, detailing seven demands.
Karpick said he's "not at liberty" to disseminate Killian's contact information. The WLCSC is still searching for a new superintendent.
WL Care's demands included adoption of BIPOC-centered teaching criteria, ending the school corporation's contract with the West Lafayette police department, inclusion of curricula that promotes intersectionality, hiring a director of diversity equity and inclusion and more. The full letter can be read here.
The group followed the letter with a collection of 30 firsthand stories of racism and discrimination within the school corporation, ranging from 1960 to 2021.
After almost four months of email correspondence, published on WL Care's website, Karpick and the board of school trustees agreed to meet with Chaubey and Afolabi. Multiple meetings and a diversity town hall eventually led to the formation of the diversity task force.
The killing of George Floyd "led to an increase of communications from out community, specifically through WL Care," said Rachel Witt, board representative to the committee. "They brought forth a list of demands, and those kind of created conversation."
While Chaubey and Afolabi said they believe corporation officials aren't doing enough, Witt said WLCSC is dedicated to "breaking down barriers" in the way of students' success.
"We're always trying to figure out the best way to serve our students, and those needs are quite varied," she said.
The task force is led by co-chairs Margaret Psarros and Laura Falk and facilitated by Carolyn Johnson, associate vice provost for diversity and inclusion at Purdue. The rest of the task force is made up of 25 WLCSC staff members, parents and other community members, as well as six current students.
Neither Psarros nor Falk responded to email requests for comment.
The task force met twice a month between January and May, and concluded by presenting four recommendations to the office of the superintendent:
- Ongoing intentional k-12 professional development through the 2021-2023 school years
- Identify a qualified educator who will be appointed diversity initiative specialist (Laura Falk)
- DEI committee will continue to be involved and work with the specialist
- Student advocacy and extended student assistance opportunities
“We’re grateful that the diversity committee recommended that the school district appoint a diversity initiative specialist," Afolabi said in a Wednesday email. "However, we were a little surprised that this was the extent of the committee’s recommendations.
"Now, we’re not going to pretend that we always have it all right. But all 4 of the committee’s recommendations were in WL CARE’s initial letter."
Task force meetings were all held privately; no minutes were documented, and nothing was recorded, Witt said. She argued that holding the meetings in public would delegitimize the discussion.
"We needed them to be able to be honest and open and comfortable," she said. "They shared very openly, and I'm not sure we would have gotten that if we would have stuck them out on a stage and said, 'OK, now speak.'
"They're not monkeys. They're wonderful humans. And we wanna understand their situation."
When another member of WL Care requested access to one of the meetings as a guest in March, WLCSC denied them access, Chaubey said. Chaubey responding by filing an official complaint with the public access counselor on March 31. Just more than three months later, Britt ruled in their favor.
But Witt reiterates that WLCSC did nothing wrong.
"The public access counselor didn't get it right," Witt said. "If a committee is administrative, that means it's a group of people put together to advise the school corporation and they make recommendations. We have a long history of this type of committee being used in our school corporation. That is not subject to open door (laws)."
Applications for the task force opened in early January. Both Chaubey and Afolabi were denied. Yue Yin, the only person of color on the board of school trustees, was also denied, according to WL Care's website.
Yin declined to comment on the task force.
Chaubey said she and Afolabi were told they were rejected because they don't currently live in West Lafayette, but she believes the real reason was more nefarious.
"We are very outspoken," she said. "We've been doing this for a year now. The real reason we're not included is because we're not pushovers, and we're not gonna let things stand that we disagree with."
Witt brushed them aside.
"They're activists," she said. "I think they're well intentioned. They haven't lived in our community for a long time. They don't know the things that we've been doing. I've tried to explain that to them, but I'm not sure that that's made a lot of progress."
Alofabi had a response to that:
"I grew up in West Lafayette, attended Cumberland Elementary School, Happy Hollow Middle School, and West Lafayette Jr/Sr High School," he said his email. "I graduated Class of 2016 and besides the time I spent away in college, 2020 was the first year I lived outside the Midwest.
"Similarly, Ila moved to West Lafayette in the middle of 3rd grade and attended both Happy Hollow and West Lafayette Jr/Sr High School."
Alofabi went on to reiterate that he and Chaubey are not the entirety of WL Care; the group is made of around 2,000 current students, alumni and community members.
"What counts as 'being here long enough'?" he asked. "What does someone have to do to speak about their experience of living in West Lafayette in order to be taken seriously?"
After the ruling, the situation is seemingly at a standstill.
The WLCSC is still considering its legal options, Karpick said.
"There are no additional meetings scheduled at this point," he said when asked whether meetings would continue to be held privately. "So I'm really not sure."
WL Care's intentions are a bit more clear.
"A lot of parents in the community are frustrated with the lack of transparency overall," Daniels said. "Going forward, we wanna see these committees be open. The diversity committee needs to change how it's operating."