Ankeny students hear slurs at school, do not feel emotionally safe, new audit finds

Erick Pruitt, Ankeny schools superintendent, speaks during a forum at Southview Middle School on Sept. 29, 2021. Photo: Bryon Houlgrave/The Register

By Chris Higgins, Des Moines Register

Ankeny schools should make improvements to make sure all students feel safe and respected, according a district audit, which also found that students use racist and homophobic slurs in the district’s schools.

The audit report, produced by West Wind Education Policy Inc. in Iowa City and released Monday, comes after months of work to analyze data and interview students, parents, staff, administrators and teachers.


The audit says that some participants expressed disapproval for the audit and believe equity work is inappropriate. It emphasizes that, while there is a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, the work aims to improve outcomes for all of the district’s students.

“The goal is that when we help all students, all students will succeed,” Circe Stumbo, president of West Wind, told the board Monday. The report comes as the district’s enrollment has exploded in recent years and the student population has grown more diverse.

The report points out area where Ankeny schools excel, such as in graduation rates, attendance rates and data collection. But it also noted concerns.


What did the audit say?

According to the audit, some students do not feel emotionally safe in school or that they belong — particularly among Black students, English learners and students with disabilities.

Students and teachers alike report that students using slurs about race and LGBTQ status is a pressing concern, which students said that adults do not regularly address.


Students also reported that teachers and other students make assumptions based on stereotypes and that less is expected from students from marginalized backgrounds.

According to the audit, there is an academic achievement gap among groups of students from different backgrounds. The gap persists when accounting for poverty.

The report also found disproportionality in which students are referred for discipline. For example, Black students make up 3% of the student body, but 6% of referrals for disruption and 20% for harassment.

Data shows that Black, Hispanic and male students are overrepresented in those receiving individualized plans for special education.

Students also told the consultants that they want educators to understand their need for agency over their own lives. Middle school students said that they are concerned that teachers do not understand that they have lives outside of school when it comes to homework, and high school students said that bathroom policies are too restrictive.

The audit also explores other concerns, but also the ultimate hope shared by students and educators alike that school is a place where everyone will feel welcome and embraced, as reflected in curriculum and policy.

What did the Ankeny schools audit recommend?

The audited highlighted 11 recommendations for district action:

Focus on professional development to help educators better understand how student identities affect their educational experiences and give educators support for learning how to respond to micro-aggressions, slurs and other bias incidents

Increase support to help general education teachers serve English learning students


Improve identification of students for individualized plans for special education

Identify and address root causes of disparities

Invest in data literacy

Examine counseling needs

Provide a safe way for students to report issues

Enact a framework for diversity, equity and inclusion and build out the district’s diversity office, which is currently an office of one

Use an equity review process before putting new policies in place

Recruit and retain a diverse workforce

Improve communication with families

The West Wind audit is one piece of the district’s planning work for the future that includes a new strategic plan and a framework for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Deshara Bohanna, a former board member, told board members on Monday that she hopes they make diversity, equity and inclusion a priority going forward as many students face difficulties.

What happens next?

Planning work by district staff is expected to come before the board for a vote later this month. School districts commonly put plans in place as a guide for how to move forward, goals to emphasize and what actions to take in coming years.

Board member Amy Tagliareni said the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion hangs heavy in the community, regardless of how one feels about it.


She said that multiple sources now confirm that the district has work to do to make sure the needs of every student is met.

“The reality of it is, if we don’t do that work, those high performance achievement numbers that we have will slide,” Tagliareni said. “If we aren’t meeting the needs of the kids in the classroom, you are going to see those numbers slide. That’s just a simple fact.”

In April, Ankeny community members objected after a diversity specialist position job posting disappeared. Superintendent Erick Pruitt said then that he decided to push back bringing the job description before the board for a vote until after the audit and other planning work was completed.

A reporter who covered that school board meeting was kept outside of the meeting room because it was filled to capacity. The reporter, who is Black, said she was mistreated, and Pruitt later apologized and promised changed policies.

Chris Higgins covers the eastern suburbs for the Register. Reach him at [email protected] or 515-423-5146 and follow him on Twitter @chris_higgins_.

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