Black students sue VUSD for ignoring bigotry


ACLU files discrimination complaint on behalf of five black students for ongoing racial hostility

By Reggie Ellis

VISALIA – Visalia Unified is being sued by five black students who claim the district has ignored bigotry and racial hostility at its school sites.

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a discrimination complaint on behalf of the students against the Visalia Unified School District on Oct. 24. The complaint, filed with the Office for Civil Rights within the Department of Education, charges the district with violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by creating a racially hostile environment. The filing also cites racially disparate detention and suspension rates.

In a released statement, the ACLU claims that black students at Visalia Unified have been repeatedly harassed and called racial slurs, including the n-word. White students have joked about hanging black students from trees, promoted a “white power” message, called black students “slaves,” and worn confederate symbols to school. They students say their reports of these incidents have been consistently ignored by teachers and administrators.

“The pervasive racial harassment in the Visalia school district goes completely unchallenged by school officials, leading black students to question their worth to district administrators,” said Abre’ Conner, a staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “The district has a long history of racial hostility and bigotry. Although there is a discrimination policy in place, it is not enforced to protect black students.”

The America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California has filed a lawsuit against the Visalia Unified School District on behalf of five black students who claim their reports of racial hostility and bigotry were ignored by teachers, principals and administrators.

The America Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California has filed a lawsuit against the Visalia Unified School District on behalf of five black students who claim their reports of racial hostility and bigotry were ignored by teachers, principals and administrators.

The ACLU stated that in 2015, black students made up 1.6% of total enrollment in the District, but received 3.9% of all In-School-Suspensions, 5.6% of all Out-of-School-Suspensions, 6.6% of all Expulsions, and 10.5% of all referrals to law enforcement. For an in school suspension, students are removed from the classroom and placed in a separate class for behavior while out of school suspensions ban students from campus for the duration of the suspension. 83.3% of black male IDEA students received Out-of-School Suspensions. 13.2% of black non-IDEA males and 9.1% percent of black non-IDEA females received Out-of-School Suspensions, the highest percentage of any ethnicity or gender in both accounts. For high school students, the data demonstrate that the disparities are even greater. For example, at El Diamante, black students made up almost 12% of all out-of-school suspensions, despite being less than 4% of the student population in 2013.

The complaint calls for an investigation into the Visalia Unified School District’s policies and practices. In addition to federal law that prohibits discrimination, the district is also obligated to combat racism under the California Education Code and its own board policies.

Additionally, the complaint offers suggestions that may help remedy the situation, including creating a meaningful process to handle complaints of harassment by students and teachers, enforcing bullying rules, organizing a Black Student Union or other safe spaces for students of color, and requiring staff training on the historical and cultural experiences of black students.

In 2006 after news reports of a student called the n-word, the ACLU sent a letter calling on the Visalia Unified School District to address the hostile environment for black students. In 2017, after hearing similar stories from more students, the ACLU sent a public comment letter to the district outlining the new incidents of racial hostility.

The district engaged in conversations for months about how to start to address the problem. Despite numerous conversations and ample time, the school district has failed to agree to tangible steps to address the racial discrimination and bias.

“It’s been over a decade since we were made aware of the racial tension and put the school district on notice,” Conner said. “This district has had years to work with us on addressing the racial hostility. Black students are legally entitled to learn in an environment free of discrimination.”

The Visalia Unified School District is in Tulare County in the agricultural Central Valley of California. The district’s student population is less than 2 percent black.

Later that same day, VUSD responded to the complaints in a released statement saying that the district “appreciates the ACLU’s passion and attention to the issues of racial justice, student discipline, and school safety. We similarly agree that these are important issues and have used previous input from the ACLU as well as the rest of the Visalia community to establish concrete steps and action items that are either currently being implemented, have been implemented, or will be implemented by the end of the 2018-2019 school year to ensure that all of our students feel safe and welcome.”

Dr. Todd Oto, superintendent of VUSD, said the district’s goal is to utilize unique, cutting edge changes to its policies, procedures, and practices to provide an example of how school districts can ensure that students are only disciplined when appropriate, and that all disciplinary decisions are based on conduct, not race.

Oto noted Visalia’s total suspension rates have dropped from 18.2% in 2011-12 to 8.8% in 2016-17, with notable decreases for Hispanic, American Indian, and African-American students. The total number of African-American expulsions for 2016-17 was 7 students, a decrease from the 14 who were expelled in 2011-12.

“Let’s be clear, we still have work to do and we hope our efforts will continue these encouraging trends,” said Dr. Oto. “And we also are committed to investigating the specific incidents referenced by ACLU’s complaint to determine where improvements in our discipline process and communication with victims can be made.”

In the letter, Oto referenced an internal action plan developed last spring and finalized in June to continue the District’s efforts to address these issues. This plan included:

-Staff training on positive behavior, anti-bullying, student free speech rights and race, and implicit bias to be conducted over the next two years.

-Training for high school student leaders on being exemplars of civil discourse, providing a safe and welcoming environment, and responding to the needs of specific student communities (e.g. the needs of African-American students). This training hopes to include local speaker involvement so students feel comfortable asking questions and opening up about the issues they face on school campuses.

– Reviewing and updating the District’s policies and procedures to ensure they contain all required nondiscrimination provisions and address issues affecting the development of student clubs and student bullying.

-Increased monitoring of discipline trends, attendance data, and mental health resources.

– Greater attention to counseling needs at each school site.

– Expanded local data development and collection to engage in a deeper understanding of the issues that affect our students.

-Confirming safety as a priority when designing facilities but specifically considering how these designs can limit bullying, teasing, or other unacceptable behavior.

-Implementing the Student Inclusivity Task Force to solicit ideas about how to create a safer and more inclusive school environment, with recommendations that will be implemented through the District annual LCAP process. The student task force first met in May 2018 and is currently discussing dress code issues related to student discipline.

– Implementing a community task force that will be discussing dress code, free speech and bullying issues at its first meeting, scheduled for Monday, October 29, 2018. The Common Ground Community Task Force represents a broad cross-section of our community.

-Implementing a staff task force to ensure staff input on ways to improve District policies, practices and programs. The Staff Task Force also consists of a broad cross representation of all staff at all levels.

Oto concluded the letter by stating, “Expectations have never been higher for our schools. At VUSD, we are committed to ensuring a positive, inclusive environment for all of our students. Whether it is a change in policy, practice or program, we must never forget to make clear that everyone has rights, which come with the responsibility to guard those rights for others, and which require respectful dialogue in order to resolve controversies. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with our community, the OCR and the ACLU as we continue our path to improvement.”

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