Juvenile Justice

Published — October 14, 2014 Updated — October 17, 2014 at 1:31 pm ET

Suit against Kern County schools alleges disproportionate discipline for minorities

The Jack O. Schulze Auditorium at Arvin High School in Kern County, Calif. Triumph1975/Wikimedia Commons

Action follows Center stories highlighting harsh punishments for blacks, Hispanics


A sweeping lawsuit filed in Kern County, Calif., late last week alleges that African-American and Latino high school students suffer discrimination from disciplinary practices that remove them at disproportionate rates from regular school and place them in inferior alternative settings.

The Center for Public Integrity in 2011 reported that Kern County, in the Golden State’s Central Valley, had the highest rate of student expulsion in California, not just on a per capita basis, but actually numerically higher than populous Los Angeles County.

In 2013, the Center and KQED radio reported that Kern County kids, among them Hispanic children of farmworkers, were removed from regular school for minor reasons and placed in alternative schools so far from home — as much as 40 miles away — that many kids dropped out or were told to perform independent study at home.

Hundreds of expelled kids, including English-as-second-language learners, were placed on independent study while officially enrolled full-time on alternative campuses, records showed. Because Kern resident Mario Ramirez was unable to get his daughter to a distant alternative school, he sent the 14-year-old to Mexico just to get her in a classroom for a few months during a year-long expulsion.

The lawsuit filed Thursday names Ramirez and other kids and parents featured in Center stories as plaintiffs; the suit alleges that in spite of parents’ meetings in recent months with the local school board to urge changes, officials “have failed to take any effective action to require that Kern High School District develop and implement discipline and school assignment plans that ameliorate the rampant racial and ethnic disparities in the district.”

Black and Latino students “routinely assigned” to independent study receive “only minimal interaction with school personnel and other students,” according to the suit, and fall behind academically.

The suit was filed in Kern County Superior Court in the Kern city of Bakersfield, which is north of Los Angeles in an area of oil drilling and some of the world’s most productive agribusiness fields.

Groups filing the suit demanding adoption of alternative discipline and student transfer practices include California Rural Legal Assistance, or CRLA, a nonprofit that has represented Kern kids in school disputes; the nonprofit Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF; the nonprofit Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, Inc.; the Dolores Huerta Foundation, a Kern County group that organizes parents; Faith in Action Kern County, a multi-faith group that also works with families; and the Equal Justice Society, a nonprofit concerned with racial equity that is based in Oakland.

The suit was filed against the 35,000-pupil Kern High School District, California’s second largest high school district. Its student body is 62 percent Latino and 6 percent black. The suit also names as defendants the district’s trustees; the Kern County Office of Education, which runs alternative campuses; and the California Department of Education.

Lisa Krch, the district’s public information and communications manager, said the Kern High School District “cannot comment on pending litigation.”

In September 2013, Mike Zulfa, the district’s associate superintendent of human resources, told the Center that the district “continues to examine our practices and look for ways to improve. By providing professional development, having honest conversations about our practices, and trying to meet the needs of our students and the community, the district has shown improvement in our expulsion rate over the past three years.”

But the suit accuses the Kern High School District of failing to comply with new state discipline policies and adopt alternative practices designed to diffuse problems without resorting to kicking kids out.

The suit also accuses the district of labeling students that its regular campuses kick out as “involuntary” or “voluntary transfers” instead of expulsions that must be reported to state and federal databases.

The suit notes that the district — under scrutiny after media reports — did cut its expulsions from 2,040 in 2011 to 256 students in 2013. But the groups argue that enrollment has not declined at alternative schools because of continuing transfers of students that parents — many of them limited English speakers — agree to authorize without fully understanding other options.

The district, the suit alleges, “has implemented a ‘waiver’ system, under which students and parents are convinced through intimidation, coerced or tricked into waiving the due process protections accompanying formal discipline and accepting immediate placement in alternative schools.”

The suit also argues that stark ethnic disparities persist among kids officially expelled from Kern’s high schools.

During the 2012-2013 school year, according to the suit, 67 percent of black students who were expelled were kicked out for infractions that did not include physical injury, possession of drugs or weapons. Only 42 percent of white students expelled were removed for similarly less serious infractions.

Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society, attributed the disproportionate rate of harsh discipline levied against Latino and black students on “implicit biases of students of color.” The U.S. Department of Education has urged schools to examine discipline policies and the impact on children who are ethnic minorities or suffer from disabilities.

Kern’s rate of suspension of students — the path leaving to eventual transfer out of regular school — was three times the state of California’s average in 2013, the suit also says.

Martha Gomez, a MALDEF staff attorney, said: “Kern High School District hurts itself and the state of California by making Latino and African-American students second-class citizens in the educational system.”

Sahar Durali, a CRLA staff attorney in the Kern farm town of Delano, said parents and various organizations have met with Kern education officials this past year to request that they improve teacher training and alternative discipline practices that are being embraced by other California districts.

“The district has the money to do this,” Durali said. She noted that the district is receiving nearly $18 million in supplemental money as part of a statewide funding program to help disadvantaged kids.

On Sept. 9, Brenda Lewis, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction, told KBAK news station in Bakersfield that a number of schools are trying “positive behavioral” intervention methods.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit is Patricia Crawford, an African-American Bakersfield mother the Center interviewed in 2011, after her daughter was expelled in 2010 for a fight in a gym witnesses agreed she didn’t start. Crawford’s daughter was later cleared, but for weeks, her mother said, her daughter fell behind as teachers declined requests for homework to do at home.

Although the girl was fully exonerated, the suit notes, she was placed on probation when admitted back into to her school and forbidden from participating in volleyball, a sport at which she excelled. The suit alleges that the girl, who has since graduated, “was identified in her school records as a problem student” and that her record “impacted school administrators’ and teachers’ treatment of her.”

Another set of parents and student interviewed by the Center are also plaintiffs in the suit. Antonio M., as the student is identified, was expelled from Arvin High School in Kern County for an alleged fight he denied being involved in. Antonio’s parents, who do not read English, said they were given paperwork in English they thought authorized a five-day suspension. In reality, according to the suit, the parents signed a waiver to an expulsion hearing.

The boy was transferred to an alternative school 30 miles away. When the parents said they had no way to get the boy there, “school personnel suggested that Antonio take the bus, which requires three transfers, or in the alternative, ride a bicycle.”

After a year without any schooling, “Antonio’s educational path has been delayed, and continues to be undermined,” the suit alleges.

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