Groups file complaint alleging civil rights violations in physical education

August 14, 2015
Students on a grassy field with plastic hoops.

Fallbrook Union Elementary School District students in physical education class.

In the latest salvo in a longstanding effort to enforce a California education law that requires physical education classes for all students, six health advocacy organizations filed a federal complaint Thursday charging that California public schools discriminate against Latino and African-American students by disproportionately denying them access to the classes, in violation of federal civil rights law.

The organizations asked for federal intervention to ensure that the California Department of Education and school districts comply with “the legal obligation to provide students with equal access to resources for physical education and fitness without regard to race, color, or national origin,” according to the complaint.

“Black and Hispanic students are systematically denied quality physical education,” according to the complaint sent to Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. The complaint was filed by the The City Project, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, the Prevention Institute, the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California and the Anahuak Youth Sports Association.

“Black and Hispanic students are systematically denied quality physical education,” according to a federal complaint charging civil rights violations in California physical education.

Robert Garcia, founding director of The City Project, a Los Angeles civil rights advocacy group, said the complaint was filed as a federal civil rights violation on the basis of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and an October 2014 so-called “Dear Colleague” guidance letter from Llahmon to educators across the country. That letter reminded educators of their obligation to end “unlawful discrimination” caused by inequities in educational resources.

“Lack of funds does not preclude the duty to act” to fulfill civil rights obligations, Llahmon wrote in the letter, which was cited in the complaint. The complaint expanded on the point by stating, “While sound educational and budgetary judgments by state and local education officials may lead school districts to prioritize certain resources, such decisions cannot reflect unlawful race discrimination in purpose or effect.”

A California Department of Education spokeswoman said Friday that the department had not seen the complaint and was unable to provide comment.

Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said in a statement that educators have turned “a blind eye” to the health consequences for children who are not provided consistent, quality physical education instruction.

“Too often these ethnic and racial disparities have a devastating impact on the long-term health and welfare of our children,” Goldstein said. “Without adequate physical education, children are more likely to be obese, develop type 2 diabetes or have a lifetime of costly chronic disease.”

California Education Code requires public schools to provide a minimum of 200 minutes of physical education every 10 days in elementary schools and 400 minutes in middle and high schools. But several studies have found significant non-compliance, including an audit by the California Department of Education of 155 districts from 2004 to 2009 that reported half were not meeting physical education requirements and a 2012 study of 55 districts from 2004 to 2006 by San Francisco State University researchers that found half of the districts were out of compliance.

In March, 37 school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, settled a lawsuit alleging they failed to provide the minimum number of physical education minutes in elementary schools. As a result, the districts are required to publicly document the amount of physical education instruction that elementary students receive, starting this fall and continuing for two to three years, depending on the district.

According to the complaint filed Thursday, the 2012 study by San Francisco State University researchers found that elementary school students in districts that did not comply with physical education minutes requirements “were more likely to be Hispanic or Black and less likely to be white or Asian.”

The California Department of Education includes an evaluation of physical education in its cycle of compliance monitoring of districts, but according to a 2007 report “Physical Education Matters” by researchers at San Diego State University, “There are no real consequences for failure to comply.”

The complaint asked Llahmon of the U.S. Department of Education to send a “Dear Colleague” guidance letter to California educators reminding them of their obligation to ensure equal access to physical education, and take other steps to ensure that physical education minutes are being monitored and fulfilled. To that end, the organizations recommended the use of a Model Action Plan for physical education and a compliance checklist developed by the Los Angeles County Health Department and several of the health organizations that filed the complaint.

Other health and civil rights advocacy groups praised the complaint. Philip Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, which co-authored an April report titled “Finishing Last: Girls of Color and School Sports Opportunities,” said in a statement,”Disparities in access to sports opportunities and physical fitness programs are another unfortunate aspect of our separate and unequal system of public education – with potential long term health impacts for children of color.”

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