Reversing, Court Says Latino and Black Students Can Sue California

(CN) — A California appeals court has given students and parents a green light to sue the state over disciplinary practices used at a San Joaquin Valley school district that allegedly target black and Latino students.

Bakersfield, California, Kern County seat and heart of the Kern School District. (Photo by AAARoads via Wikipedia)

The plaintiff-appellants sued the Kern High School district and the California Department of Education in 2014, citing public data showing that Kern schools were suspending, expelling and transferring minority and non-English speaking students at a much greater rate than white students. The district is at the southern end of California’s Great Central Valley, near Bakersfield, and more than 65% of its students are Latino.

On Tuesday, the California Fifth District Court of Appeals revived equal-protection claims against state education officials brought by current and former students of the district that were dismissed by a state court.

The three-member panel found the state should face allegations that it allowed the district to discriminate against minority students.

“Appellants have alleged, with statistical support, that minority students accused of similar behaviors as their white counterparts are subjected to expulsion and suspension for that conduct at different, and statistically significant levels,” the 48-page ruling states. “We therefore continue to consider whether proper allegations of disparate treatment exist.”

According to the complaint, the school district expelled white students during the 2009-10 school year at an average of 18.70 per 1,000, Latinos at 65.85 per 1,000 —352% higher than the white expulsion rate — and African-Americans at 110.21 per 1,000: 589% higher than white kids. The average nationwide expulsion rate in 2010 was 1.50 per 1,000 students, and the average in California was 3.49 per 1,000.

The Dolores Huerta Foundation and two other nonprofits joined the students’ and parents’ lawsuit, represented by California Rural Legal Assistance and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). Dolores Huerta, 89, is a longtime labor leader and civil rights advocate, who co-founded the United Farm Workers with the late Cesar Chavez.

The plaintiffs say the reversal will help ensure that other districts do not prevent minority students from getting a good education.

“This is a long-needed affirmation of what we all know to be true: The state of California may not sit back and do nothing in the face of discriminatory practices by school districts that push students of color out of the classroom,” said Cynthia Rice, attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance.

The plaintiffs and the school district settled in 2017, with the district agreeing to make major changes in its disciplinary framework, provide new staff training and community forums. But the settlement did not keep the students from going after the state.

In court briefs, the students argued that the state was aware of the disparate treatment but did not take action against the school district. They said the state violated equal protection laws that guarantee “all students in California basic education equality.”

The Department of Education did not immediately respond to request for comment after office hours Wednesday.

While the panel upheld the trial court’s dismissal of several claims against the Department of Education, equal protection claims will move forward. It also found that Delores Huerta Foundation has standing to go after the state.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys hope the case will end California’s “school-to-nowhere” pipeline.

“Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board (of Education), this is a critical holding for California’s public school students,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel.

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