TOM HARTON Commentary: Kids were pawns in an adult game

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Judge S. Hugh Dillin is dead, but the negative consequences of his school desegregation orders are still with us.

Dillin, who died March 13, didn’t invent white flight, suburban sprawl or broken urban school systems, but if those problems were smoldering in 1970s Indianapolis, Dillin’s decisions poured gasoline on the fire.

This column is not a diatribe against Dillin. His decisions were only interpretations of the law, after all, and the highest court in the land affirmed them. Based on what I’ve read about him in the last few weeks, he must’ve been a terrific guy.

Nor do I have any complaint about the goals of courtordered busing. I’m all for eliminating barriers and doing away with injustice and discrimination.

So the cause of desegregation was noble-but the cost was steep.

It’s not coincidence that enrollment in Indianapolis Public Schools has fallen from 108,000 in 1971, the year Dillin found IPS in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to just more than 38,000 today. (Over the same period, private schools fattened up on public school expats. Cathedral High School was scheduled to close in 1973 because of dwindling enrollment. The late business leader Robert Welch stepped in to save it, and IPS flight helped feed Cathedral’s renaissance.)

It’s not coincidence that the populations of surrounding counties, those outside the scope of Dillin’s orders, have boomed in the last three decades. And it’s no mystery why IPS has struggled financially over the last three decades. The reasons are numerous, but among them is the fact operating a fleet of school buses isn’t cheap.

But all this pales in comparison to the real tragedy of court-ordered busing: Adults used schoolchildren to right the wrongs of other adults. Kids were the guinea pigs in a government experiment. It’s impossible to quantify the damage caused by educations interrupted, friendships ended and the turmoil busing visited on our public schools.

I saw all this firsthand.

Odd as this probably sounds to some readers of IBJ, my parents moved to the east side of Indianapolis in the 1950s because of the public schools. My older brothers benefited from what had been a wise choice. Excellent teachers, involved parents and a good environment for learning were abundant in the years they attended IPS No. 82 and Howe High School, both of which were in walking distance of our house. This was a community in the truest sense of the word.

I got only a taste of what my brothers experienced before the world changed on a single day in the fall of 1973. One afternoon a dozen or so of the kids in my sixth-grade homeroom were handed envelopes containing “reassignment” instructions. A few weeks later, we said our goodbyes. The next day, kids from Rowney Terrace and Clearstream Gardens public housing projects took their place.

We stopped studying history and started witnessing it.

Hand-to-hand combat between teachers and students became commonplace. There was something empowering about it-who knew throwing a right hook at a teacher was an option? But it wasn’t an environment conducive to readin’, writin’ or ‘rithmetic.

Teachers struggled to keep order. The toughest ones (it turns out our petite music teacher knew some good wrestling moves) were up to the task and still managed to impart some knowledge. For others, teaching became secondary to controlling the chaos. One such teacher was physically assaulted by an angry parent.

I don’t know what kind of school environment the bused kids came from, but I can’t imagine it was worse than what they stepped into.

And so it went for three long years. My education in grammar and composition was lost in the chaos. I didn’t know what a paragraph was when I started high school.

If Dillin and the learned adults who shoved busing down our throats meant to replace classroom experience with life experience, they got it right. But I doubt that was their intent.

If misguided adults were playing tricks to keep schools segregated in violation of the state’s 1949 desegregation law, Brown vs. the Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act, there must’ve been a better way to bring them into line.

If school resources were being distributed unequally, if school boundaries were drawn crooked to keep the races separate, if housing laws, Unigov or any other facet of our civic life were responsible for segregation, there must’ve been a solution less damaging than shipping kids miles from home with little regard or understanding of the consequences.

Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to

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