Vigo County School Corp. interim superintendent Tom Balitewicz speaks at Monday evening’s board meeting. Tribune-Star/Sue Loughlin
Vigo County School Corp. interim superintendent Tom Balitewicz speaks at Monday evening’s board meeting. Tribune-Star/Sue Loughlin
Interim Vigo County School Corp. superintendent Tom Balitewicz on Monday addressed the district’s response to student racist actions at West Vigo High School and steps that will be taken at the school — and districtwide — moving forward.

He spoke near the conclusion of Monday’s School Board meeting, the first of 2023 and one that saw four new board members: Carey LaBella, Rick Burger, Ken Warner and James JD Skelton.

Prior to his comments, several members of the audience spoke vehemently about the situation and demanded consequences for those who carried out racist actions and staff members who let such actions go on. They also called for the district to make public that response.

In his comments, Balitewicz said, “We have disciplined numerous students, including suspensions and recommendations for expulsion for behaviors inconsistent with those expected of students of the Vigo County School Corp.”

An independent hearing officer was hired to judge those expulsion requests.

“In addition, we are administering disciplinary action for current staff members that did not act responsibly or appropriately. Only by holding those responsible can we begin to rebuild trust,” he said.

To regain trust, “We need to bring awareness and change. We must be sure that we monitor our progress and that we are transparent with our data.”

Balitewicz said that he met with the students affected by the racial discord at West Vigo and with their parents present. He said he apologized to them on behalf of the school corporation.

“I expressed my sorrow for the behaviors that they had to experience over the past several years and relayed that racism cannot, and will not, be tolerated in the Vigo County School Corp. I applauded the courage the students displayed to come forward and bring these issues to light,” Balitewicz said.

He said the inquiry done by outside investigators “revealed racist actions perpetrated by a small group of students at West Vigo High School toward African American students. These actions included students using racist words and terms, racist pictures and videos and racist actions toward African American students.”

The report also discussed students reporting these issues to certain staff who did not then take appropriate action, the interim superintendent said.

“At some point, students stopped reporting issues because they felt there was a chilling effect that caused inaction by the staff,” he said Parents trust that while at school, their children will not be exposed to racism and they trust that if their child does encounter racism, it will be dealt with swiftly and appropriately, Balitewicz said.

“I apologize to the greater community because that trust has been compromised. We will need to work hard to rebuild that trust,” he said.


Balitewicz then outlined steps that will be put in place immediately to help regain the community’s trust.

At West Vigo High School, the response will include training, school response to allegations and diversity programming.

Schoolwide training for all staff including lay coaches will focus on the responsibility of the individual to report issues of harassment, bullying, hazing and racial issues.

The training must focus on moving away from the “Lone Ranger” approach, he said. “This approach was endemic with this entire saga. Issues that were reported by students to adults never made it to the school administration.”

This lack of reporting created a chilling effect for students wanting to report allegations.

“Training will specifically target this practice,” Balitewicz said. “When a student reports an issue regarding harassment, that report must be reported to the school administration.”

The training will address the school response when allegations are substantiated.

“Evidently, the favored approach among staff and coaches is to address all issues of this nature primarily through conversations with students followed by a warning not to engage in the behavior again or else there will be consequences,” Balitewicz said.

As a result of no discipline being issued, a feeling arose among some that nothing was addressed and the incidents would not stop.

The training will develop safeguards so that substantiated allegations will be documented and discipline will be issued.

Diversity programming will take place for all students and staff at West Vigo. It will include education in racial harassment, language, bullying and related topics.

“A more intensive program will be created for the football team, where most of these issues originated,” the interim superintendent said.

During training with staff, the expectation will be communicated outlining stringent consequences for any staff member implicated in problematic behavior or language.

Districtwide changes

_ Task Force: The VCSC will create a task force that will craft a corporation wide plan to address issues revolving around race. It will have co-chairs including the director of diversity/inclusion and community members outside the school district.

_ Data presentation: During the first board meeting in June, the superintendent will publicly share discipline-related statistics relative to expulsions, suspensions, arrests and alternative placements, disaggregated by race, economic status and special education. Areas of disproportionality will be highlighted.

_ Student reporting: The school corporation will highlight procedures for all students to report issues regarding harassment or bullying, such as the STOP It app or the bully reporting form.

The district is hopeful that with these strategies, it can make progress and regain the trust of the community, Balitewicz said.

Recently, a community member concerned about the issues said, “It will probably be a good thing to close this sad chapter for our school corporation.”

Balitewicz said that at first, he agreed, but after thinking about it, “I believe that closing the chapter is the problem. The school corporation needs to keep this chapter open. We need to read this chapter over and over again so we can continue to reinforce these important lessons,” he said.

He also said he’s been given a few examples of West Vigo students being harassed in public for merely wearing a letter jacket or school colors.

“I find this harassment to be unacceptable and [it] does not add to the needed dialogue to move our community forward,” he said. “West Vigo students need love and understanding at this time, not hate. I urge the entire community to assist in the healing by demonstrating compassion for our students and staff on the West Side.”

He thanked the community for exercising patience and understanding as the district conducted the investigation. Due to affording students and staff their full due process rights, “This has caused this situation to last longer than anticipated,” he said. After the meeting, Crystal Lowe, the parent of one of the students who faced racist actions, said she hopes the district will follow through on what Balitewicz outlined.

“I think it was better than what we’ve been hearing. Absolutely,” she said.

Lowe said she would like to see diversity on the school board.

Pastor Terry Clark, who addressed the issue during the meeting, said, “It’s a start. He’s new in the job. … He did the right thing by apologizing to the community.

But the jury is going to be out for awhile on some of the things he is proposing, until the community actually sees results about what exactly happens to those who knew what was going on and allowed it to happen.”

Clark agrees with Balitewicz “that this is a chapter that needs to stay open.” It should be a chapter that never closes, he said.
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