Expulsions by race/ethnicity in Antioch Unfied School District, 2011. Source federal Office for Civil Rights Data Collection

The NAACP has filed suit against a Northern California school district alleging the district has undermined the legal agreement it has with the civil rights organization to improve school discipline practices.

The lawsuit, announced Thursday and filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court, asks the court to compel the Antioch Unified School District to follow through on its agreement to allow specialists from outside the district to examine the persistent disproportionality in the number of African-American students who are suspended or expelled. The issues to be examined include why and when African-American students are expelled or suspended, whether the district has provided African-American students with sufficient special education services to address academic struggles that can lead to behavior problems, and how a staff that is predominantly white might be trained to deal with potential racial bias in a district where nearly 80 percent of students are of Latino, African-American, Asian or other minority heritage.

The district signed the agreement with the East County NAACP in March 2015 and admitted no wrongdoing. But in the 16 months since, “the school district has failed to provide the experts with necessary information to complete their reports and issue recommendations,” said Michael Harris, senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, which along with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund and the Equal Justice Society, brought the suit on behalf of the East County NAACP.

Antioch Unified Superintendent Stephanie Anello said in a statement, “We are disappointed that the local NAACP has chosen to file a lawsuit, rather than to work with the district on a fair and impartial review of district practices.” In the process of collecting data and providing access to the specialists, the district had questions about “methodology, student and staff privacy, fairness and impartiality,” she said. Those questions were raised in November 2015, but have yet to be addressed by the NAACP, she said.

“Unfortunately, it appears the NAACP and Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund are no longer interested in working with the district, and we are now faced with the distraction of defending the district against this unwarranted litigation when we should be focusing all energy and resources on serving our students and our community and on the school year ahead,” Anello said.

According to the lawsuit, staff at the Antioch Unified School District allegedly have let months go by without responding to email requests from the specialists for discipline data and information, have failed to help specialists set up interviews with administrators and teachers and have circulated the idea that teachers who talked about their racial biases with experts would have that information used against them by the district.

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Click to enlarge— Race/ethnicity of students receiving In-School Suspensions, Out-of-School Suspensions, or Expulsions in Antioch Unified School District, 2011. Source federal Office for Civil Rights Data Collection

In 2011, African-Americans students made up 26 percent of the student body in Antioch Unified but accounted for 60 percent of suspensions, according to the federal Office for Civil Rights Data Collection. And while the total number of students suspended or expelled in the district has dropped in the last few years, the rate of suspensions for African- American students has remained essentially unchanged, the lawsuit said.

When Antioch Unified signed the 2015 agreement, then-Superintendent Donald Gill said the intervention by outside specialists marked a turning point in the district from a defensive posture to a problem-solving approach to school discipline. He said he hoped the district would serve “as a model for others who face similar challenges.” But Gill is no longer superintendent and the district no longer uses the law firm that negotiated the 2015 agreement. “The process has come to a halt,” said Willie Mims, education chair for the East County NAACP.

Selecting the outside experts took nearly a year before an agreement was reached, said Arlene Mayerson, directing attorney with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. Ultimately the experts included leaders in their fields: Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA; Jeffrey Sprague, professor of special education and director of the University of Oregon’s Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior; john a. powell and Ingrid Melvaer Paulin of the UC Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society; and Rachel D. Godsil, director of research at the Perception Institute.

The 2015 agreement was not the first effort to change discipline and special education practices in Antioch Unified. In 2009, the district reached two agreements in response to complaints of discriminatory discipline practices — a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. In 2010, the district also reached a resolution agreement with the Office for Civil Rights over complaints of discriminatory practices in special education.

The 2009 ACLU settlement included five years of training for staff and teachers, but despite this, the disproportionate rate of suspension and expulsion of African-American students continued, Mayerson said. Because the previous training had not addressed unconscious racial beliefs, Mayerson said, “we were trying to get at the roots of this and there is implicit bias, so that was one of the things we added to the mix.”

Implicit bias refers to the stereotypes that all people have about groups of people with whom they are unfamiliar. These sometimes unwitting biases can have a dramatic effect on the educational experiences of children, experts say, and can help to explain why misbehavior from some students is overlooked while other students receive harsh discipline.

An anonymous teacher survey about racial bias proved to be the most contentious issue, Mims said. While the outside experts stated that whatever teachers wrote about their feelings would be held in confidence, an Antioch administrator allegedly told teachers that admissions of bias would “cause the district to fire allegedly ‘racist’ teachers, and that the teachers would be ‘tools’ in a lawsuit against the district,” according to the lawsuit. The survey was never administered.

“The district has sabotaged the experts’ attempts to secure district employees’ participation in the social psychology measures,” the lawsuit stated.

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  1. James Scanlan 4 months ago4 months ago

    The following statement in this article might be a reason for concern if correct: “And while the total number of students suspended or expelled in the district has dropped in the last few years, the rate of suspensions for African- American students has remained essentially unchanged, the lawsuit said.” Actually, however, the suit merely said that the proportion African Americans made up of suspended students was essentially unchanged. In fact, the African American suspension … Read More

    The following statement in this article might be a reason for concern if correct: “And while the total number of students suspended or expelled in the district has dropped in the last few years, the rate of suspensions for African- American students has remained essentially unchanged, the lawsuit said.”

    Actually, however, the suit merely said that the proportion African Americans made up of suspended students was essentially unchanged. In fact, the African American suspension rate declined from 40.7% to 29.4%.

    A more serious matter is that the suit reflects the view that generally reducing discipline rates will tend to reduce the proportion African Americans make up of suspended students. In fact, exactly the opposite the case. I explain this in a September 12, 2016 letter to the leadership of the school district. Reference 1 below. Table 2 of the letter shows the pertinent suspension data.

    An additional wrinkle in the case is that the lead expert identified in the complaint measures disparities in a way that tends to result in opposite conclusions about directions of changes in disparities from the approach reflected in the complaint. That expert would regard the African American/white difference in suspension rates to have declined from 29.9 percentage points to 21.6 percentage points over the 2012-13 school year/2014-15 school year period discussed in the complaint.

    The letter to the school district is fairly complex. More succinct explanations of its key points may be found in references 2 and 3.

    1. Antioch Unified School District (Sept. 12, 2016)
    http://www.jpscanlan.com/images/Letter_to_Antioch_Unified_School_District_Sept._12,_2016_.pdf
    2. “The Paradox of Lowering Standards,” Baltimore Sun (Aug. 5, 2013) http://jpscanlan.com/images/Paradox_of_Lowering_Standards.pdf
    3. “Things DOJ doesn’t know about racial disparities in Ferguson,” The Hill (Feb. 22, 2016) http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/judicial/270091-things-doj-doesnt-know-about-racial-disparities-in-ferguson

  2. Clayton Moore 6 months ago6 months ago

    This district should consider a Restorative Justice program. Successful examples include Los Angeles Unified, and Syracuse, New York.

    Replies

    • Jasmine 6 months ago6 months ago

      The district implemented a Restorative Justice program and the accompanying trainings years ago. The problem is that under pressure from the district to not suspend or expel students of color, the implementation of the RJ program ended up being a situation where students who had just disrupted a classroom and told a teacher to "F off" were asked what was bothering them and sent back to the same class. It's a disaster - … Read More

      The district implemented a Restorative Justice program and the accompanying trainings years ago. The problem is that under pressure from the district to not suspend or expel students of color, the implementation of the RJ program ended up being a situation where students who had just disrupted a classroom and told a teacher to “F off” were asked what was bothering them and sent back to the same class. It’s a disaster – and the teachers are completely stuck to fend for themselves.

  3. Patricia Dilks 6 months ago6 months ago

    These percentages are biased in that they do not give the actual numbers of students disciplined. As in the nature vs. nurture debate, it is highly unlikely that the answer lies completely in bias, or completely in actual behavior. The district should have cooperated more, and the parents and families should be subject to the same level of intense review and observation as the district.

  4. Freire Paulo 6 months ago6 months ago

    It is disheartening to see the very people fighting for equity and social justice in education to be attacked by those that they are trying to help advance. At a time of so much racial divisiveness in this country the NAACP should be commending AUSD for its efforts to educate students. Shame! "The district has sabotaged the experts attempts to secure district employees' participation in the social … Read More

    It is disheartening to see the very people fighting for equity and social justice in education to be attacked by those that they are trying to help advance. At a time of so much racial divisiveness in this country the NAACP should be commending AUSD for its efforts to educate students. Shame! “The district has sabotaged the experts attempts to secure district employees’ participation in the social psychology measures ” That doesn’t even make sense!

  5. Freire Paulo 6 months ago6 months ago

    It is disheartening to see the very people fighting for equity and social justice in education to be attacked by those that they are trying to help advance. Anytime it’s so much racial divisiveness in this country the NAACP should be commending AUSD for its efforts. Shame! “The district has sabotaged the experts attempts to secure district employees’ participation in the social psychology measures.” That doesn’t even make sense!

  6. Lou 6 months ago6 months ago

    I’ve read that school discipline disparities happen because the teaching force is majority white and they are not culturally sensitive to minority cultures.

    So can someone explain to me why white kids are suspended at a higher rate than Asians?