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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Kern County Schools Blasted as Biased

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) - The Kern High School District expels far more Latino and African-American students than white ones and sends them to alternative schools that limit their academic opportunities, parents, children and three nonprofits claim in court.

The Dolores Huerta Foundation, two other nonprofits and 10 people affected by the alleged discrimination sued the school district and its Board of Trustees, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and the California Department of Education, on Oct. 8 in Kern County Court.

Kern County is at the lower end of the San Joaquin Valley. Its seat is Bakersfield.

Plaintiffs' attorney Sahar Durali, with California Rural Legal Assistance of Delano, told Courthouse News that the main problem is the school district's "unwillingness to move forward toward restorative justice and positive behavioral interventions and supports."

"Before we filed the complaint, we sent a demand letter to the district," Durali said. "We didn't ask for money. We asked for [them to adopt] positive behavioral interventions and supports and restorative justice, to hire an independent consultant to analyze the data, set up a community monitoring system, and remove willful defiance from the discipline code. But we got stone-cold silence from the district."

"We don't understand their obstinacy here," Durali added.

Founded in 1893, Kern High School District (KHSD) serves more than 37,000 students at 30 schools in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, and is the largest high school district in California, according to its website. It encompasses 3,500 square miles and covers approximately 43 percent of the total area in Kern County.

Of those 37,000 students, 6.3 percent are African-American and 62 percent are Latino, according to the complaint.

"Over the last five years that student population has been subjected to discipline and school assignment policies that have made it far more likely than the general school population for African-American and Latino students to be suspended, expelled, and assigned to alternative schools," the complaint states.

"In 2009-10, KHSD reported 2,205 expulsions, the highest actual number of expulsions in the state of California for a school district, even when compared to far larger school districts such as Los Angeles Unified School District."

The nationwide expulsion rate in 2010 was an average of 1.50 per 1,000 students, and the average in California was 3.49 per 1,000.

In contrast, the average expulsion rate for Kern County was 14.87 per 1,000 and 54.47 per 1,000 students at KHSD, according to the lawsuit.

The school district expelled white students at an average of 18.70 per 1,000, Latinos at 65.85 per 1,000, which is 352 percent higher than the white expulsion rate, and African-Americans at 110.21 per 1,000, which is 589 percent higher than the average for whites, the complaint adds.

After the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights released a report highlighting the "dramatic disparities" between expulsion rates for white students and students of color at KHSD and other school districts across the nation, KHSD purportedly implemented programs to reduce its expulsion rates.

Though the district reported only 256 expulsions in the 2012-13 school year and 80 expulsions in 2013-14, the plaintiffs claim the decrease was not due to suspending fewer students, but to sending them to alternative schools through involuntary transfers and a "waiver" system in which the district "intimidate(es)" and "coerce(s)" parents and students into waiving their due process rights and accepting placement at an alternative school to avoid formal expulsion.


The plaintiffs say that 10.4 percent of all African-American students enrolled in the district and 4 percent of its Latino students were sent to these alternative schools, which are "inferior educational environments that reduce the likelihood of their academic success and subsequent post graduate opportunities."

Such racial disparities exacerbate what is known as the "school-to-prison pipeline," a nationally recognized pattern in which discriminatory educational practices and "punitive discipline policies" push students of color "out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice system," the complaint states.

"Students who receive harsh discipline and are transferred out of a general school setting are also more likely to drop out, less likely to graduate on time, if at all, and are less likely to attend or complete college or post-high school vocational training. This affects their overall ability to succeed in life and is more accurately described as the 'school-to-nowhere' pipeline, because while most students from alternative schools do not end up in jail, they do end up unemployed, underemployed, and in the lowest paying jobs," the complaint adds.

On its website, KHSD says its mission is to "provide programs and services to allow ALL students to graduate from high school prepared to succeed in the workplace or at the post-secondary level."

But the plaintiffs say KHSD has developed "highly discretionary" expulsion policies and zero-tolerance standards that disproportionately affect Latino and African-American students.

For example, plaintiff Arlene Sanders, an African-American, claims her son was suspended 10 times for willful defiance and allegedly disrupting class in the 2013-14 school year, and was transferred to an alternative school in May 2014 after he allegedly attempted to steal something.

Plaintiff Isidro Larralde, a Latino, says he was sent to a reform school for defending himself against bullies who were harassing him because of his perceived sexual orientation. He says he told administrators at his original high school and at the reform school about the bullying, but they did nothing to stop it. After being expelled from the reform school and sent to a community school, he says, he decided to drop out because of the way the administration treated him.

These examples are just a few of many. The 61-page lawsuit details many other incidents of alleged discrimination and severe punishment for offenses as small as using foul language in the classroom.

KHSD's discipline code includes a range of behavioral offenses, from willful defiance and being late to class to assault and battery and possession of drugs or a weapon.

The plaintiffs say students of color are far more likely than their white peers to be expelled for minor offenses. Fifty-eight percent of the white students expelled had committed serious offenses such as having a weapon or hurting another student, whereas only 51 percent of Latinos and 33 percent of African-Americans were expelled for these reasons, according to the lawsuit.

Suspension rates also show racial bias: while only 7.69 per 100 white students were suspended for willful defiance, 27.69 per 100 African-Americans and 13.08 per 100 Latinos were suspended for the same offense, the complaint states.

KHSD also "routinely" places students of color on independent study "as a disciplinary measure," preventing them from receiving in-class instruction, from getting enough work to graduate, and from participating in extracurricular activities, according to the complaint.

Durali told Courthouse News that this fact is troubling because students who are expelled or involuntarily placed on independent study are more likely to drop out and join street gangs, and end up in the district attorney's office.

The plaintiffs claim these racial disparities are the result of pervasive racial stereotypes and unconscious biases that claim African-Americans and Latinos are less intelligent, less honest, and more prone to deviant and criminal behavior than whites.

These stereotypes and biases in turn influence KHSD's suspension, expulsion, and reassignment policies, resulting in "relatively harsher treatment of African-American and Latino students" and interfering with their ability to access "equal education opportunities," the complaint states.

Durali insisted that even if the kids that get expelled or assigned to alternative schools are archetypal "bad kids," they still deserve and need help.

"We have an opportunity to make the bad kids into the good kids with the right policies in place," she told Courthouse News.

These policies include implicit bias training, restorative justice and positive behavioral intervention and support (PBI), which studies have shown are effective in reducing suspension and expulsions and "ameliorat(ing) the disparate impacts suffered by children of color that result from explicit and implicit bias," the complaint states.

But KHSD refuses to adopt these policies, and even turned down "free money" from a grant that would have helped it develop racially sensitive approaches to discipline, Durali said.

The district got a $17.6 million grant from the Local Control Funding Formula to increase services to low-income and minority students, but put only "$900,000 toward PBI research and $2.4 million for school cops," Durali said.

She noted that school districts in Fresno and Los Angeles have experienced progress with such programs. Though KHSD has paid the issue "a lot of lip service," she said, it will not commit to adopting these policies.

"We really are not asking for more than what others have already done," Durali said. "We are seeking systematic change to benefit all kids in the district and make it a great school climate for everyone."

The plaintiffs seek a declaration that KHSD's treatment of students of color violates their equal protection and due process rights, and an injunction preventing the district from enforcing racially biased disciplinary measures.

They also want the district to give "educational remediation services" to the plaintiffs and other students who were transferred or expelled due to discriminatory practices, and for the state defendants to ensure that disciplinary policies are "racially and ethnically neutral."

Tina Jung, with the California Department of Education's Communications Division, declined to comment, saying the department had not yet reviewed the complaint.

Requests for comment left for a spokesperson with the Kern High School District were not immediately returned, nor were requests sent to Kern County Superintendent of Schools Christine Lizardi Frazier.

Email addresses and links for contact information for the district's Board of Trustees all led to error pages on Friday.

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