Vernon Smith

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, speaks in the Indiana House during the 2019 legislative session. Photo by Bryan Wells, TheStatehouseFile.com

First published February 18, 2021 in TheStatehouseFile.com

During the House session on Thursday, a bill concerning school district boundaries that some are calling racist sparked an emotional and angry debate. Several legislators walked out of the chamber, GOP legislators in their seats booed and shouted “no” and “stop,” and some members even clashed in the halls after Black legislators spoke out against the bill. 

The confrontations broke out on a day when Black members were celebrating Black History Month by wearing traditional African garb. 

“We kind of felt like it kind of fed into how the members were acting,” said Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis. “I think having on the African garb and our members going up there stating how they felt about a bill, I think that just antagonized them even more.”

The bill would allow de-annexation of neighborhoods that are currently part of the South Bend Community School Corporation, which is mostly non-white, and move them to John Glenn School Corporation, which is mostly white. 

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, spoke against the bill and said it raises questions of racism. As Porter spoke, several legislators booed and jeered audibly on the livestream. Shackleford said some GOP members ignored the proceedings to gather in the back of the room. 

“I have a right to speak,” Porter said before walking out into the hall. 

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, once a Gary Public Schools teacher and a principal, spoke after Porter and raised similar concerns that the bill had racist intent and was also booed. Legislators are worried the issue of white communities trying to leave minority-dominated school districts and take away funding could result in legal challenges. 

“This is another wrong of this nation,” Smith said. “I don’t care how you twist it, how you paint it, how you disguise it, how you camouflage it. It’s racist.”

While in a meeting with Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, Shackleford said representatives came in saying Smith had been verbally attacked in the bathroom by Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Brazil. Smith came into the meeting and said he was in the bathroom washing his hands when Morrison entered, calling him a bully and other derogatory names. Smith tried to ignore it and keep going, according to Shackleford, but Morrison kept following him until Smith said something back. Neither Morrison nor Smith could immediately be reached for comment to corroborate this story. 

Journalists who were present at the Statehouse said several Republicans walked out of the chamber and that there was a confrontation between Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, and Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis. 

Both The Atlantic and The New York Times have reported instances in Louisiana and Alabama where white communities have tried to separate from minority communities. 

“Laws in 30 states explicitly allow communities to form their own public-school systems, and since 2000, at least 71 communities across the country, most of them white and wealthy, have sought to break away from their public-school districts to form smaller, more exclusive ones,” The New York Times reported, citing a study by EdBuild.

Based on the United States Census, as of 2019, South Bend was 61.7% white while 48.5% identified as part of a minority group. 

The bill’s author, Rep. Jake Teshka, R-Mishawaka, said his bill was not based on race but rather on other issues like transportation for students and putting them closer to their homes. 

The bill passed with a 53-42 vote. Fourteen Republicans joined Democrats against the bill. It now moves forward to the Senate. 

Speaker Todd Huston addressed legislators before recessing for caucus. 

“We face emotional issues that quite frankly none of us can understand,” Huston said. “We only know our one perspective.” 

Alexa Shrake is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. 

TheStatehouseFile.com is a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.