Education

Civil rights groups are calling on Jefferson County School Board member Linda Duncan to step down after making comments they say were racist during Tuesday night’s board meeting.

Board members had just heard a report from the district on efforts to make changes to get out from under federal and state corrective action plans. The district has been under state and federal oversight for having disproportionately high discipline rates for black students and students with disabilities. After hearing a report on overall progress, Duncan called into question whether groups of people behave proportionately.

“If you did that with our basketball teams they would look entirely different than what they look like now,” Duncan said. “If we said ‘oh well our African Americans are only 37 percent of the population, so therefore our basketball teams should only be 37 percent of the population — these things just don’t make sense, and yet that is what we’re going to be criticized for.”

Board members pushed back against Duncan’s comments later in the meeting.

“I find it at the very least, very racially insensitive, if not racist, to equate African-Americans with playing basketball as opposed to being doctors or lawyers or anything else,” board member Chris Kolb said.

But Duncan said she didn’t believe she said anything wrong.

“That particular example, everybody can relate to in what we see,” Duncan replied.

Board Chair Diane Porter tried to rein in the discussion.

“What we say matters to everybody,” Porter said. “I do not think it is the best interest of the board to do this at this time in a public forum.”

Board member James Craig also took issue with Duncan’s comments.

“It is important for us to not allow that to stand, and point out that it is more harmful to the good work that we’re trying to do at this table than it is helpful,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Louisville Urban League and Black Lives Matter Louisville called on Duncan to resign.

It’s time for JCPS board member Linda Duncan to be relieved of her duties. Her comments and attitude are not representative of a district desiring to embrace, educate and empower a student body as diverse as @JCPSKY,” the Louisville Urban League wrote in a tweet.

“She must resign,” Black Lives Matter Louisville tweeted.

A top JCPS administrator also criticized the comments.

“Not okay for a board member to speak passionately about Disproportionate suspensions of Sped AA students as if ‘those students need to behave better, and do we address disproportionate numbers of African American boys on a basketball team!'” JCPS Chief of Schools Devon Horton wrote in a tweet.

In an interview Wednesday, Duncan said she still doesn’t believe she said anything wrong.

“Basically I’m being bullied for a misrepresentation of what I said,” Duncan said.

She said she was trying to get across her view that it’s a “fantasy to think that everybody is going to behave according to the percent that their group represents.”

She doesn’t think there’s evidence that black or special education students are being disciplined more because of their race or disability.

While Black students make up 36 percent of the district, they received 66 percent of all discipline resolutions in the 2018-2019 school year, according to state data. Students with disabilities were also disciplined at higher rates than their peers.

“If there are more behavior incidents coming from one group, I think that just alerts us to that group needing more support,” Duncan.

There is a large body of academic research showing that black students and students with disabilities are more likely to be disciplined because of implicit or explicit bias on the part of educators, and that is has negative impacts on students.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.