The Kern High School District announced Monday that it had settled a discrimination lawsuit brought by parents, students and community groups that alleged a history of racially biased practices and disproportionate rates of suspension, expulsion and transfers to undesirable alternative schools for black and Latino students.
Under the terms of the settlement, the Kern High School District admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to develop new discipline policies under the guidance of experts on unconscious racial bias. The district said that it had no doubt of prevailing if the lawsuit had proceeded, but that the time and expense were too great. In addition, the district said the settlement agreement was consistent with its “existing vision and programs related to student behavior and discipline.”
In 2009, the district reported 2,205 expulsions, the highest number of expulsions in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights cited in the lawsuit. The lawsuit alleged the district used “unnecessarily punitive measures when dealing with behavior issues” instead of training teachers in alternative methods of classroom management or investigating why students were misbehaving. Those punitive measures were applied particularly often to students of color, the lawsuit said. In 2015, Latino students comprised 64 percent of the student population, white students about 23 percent and black students about 6 percent.
“Racially biased discipline is often the result of unacknowledged stereotypes of Latino and black students that result in their being suspended and expelled in disproportionately higher numbers than their white counterparts,” said Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit in 2014.
“The settlement creates an accountable and enforceable structure for completely redoing the discipline matrix,” said Cynthia Rice, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, another group in the lawsuit. “More importantly, it allows for experts in implicit bias and cultural bias to inform the whole process.”
The district, which serves 38,000 students in the Central Valley, said in a statement posted on its website that “it has not violated any civil rights or laws with respect to its student discipline practices.” The district characterized the lawsuit as a waste of money and unnecessary, given that the district was already instituting alternative approaches to reduce the number of students who are suspended and expelled each year.
“Certainly, KHSD has not engaged in intentional systemic racist student discipline practices against African-American and Latino students,” the district said. “Rather KHSD, like most public school districts nationwide, has been reviewing its student discipline data as it impacts minority students, and reframing its student discipline practices in order to address the statistically disproportionate suspension and expulsion of students of color.”
To consult on its disciplinary approaches, the district said it already employs two experts, Jon Eyler of Collaborative Learning Solutions and Edward Fergus of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education. The settlement calls for two additional experts, Jeffrey Sprague of the University of Oregon and Rachel Godsil of the Perception Institute, to join the district team.
Among the complaints in the lawsuit was a situation involving Jerry Reagor, a black Foothill High School student who was suspended and involuntarily transferred for a seemingly minor infraction.
In 2015, the lawsuit said, he removed his hat upon entering school as requested by the dean. At the end of the school day, he returned to the office to retrieve his hat and was told he would have to wait until the dean was finished with her meeting. He said he didn’t want to be late for eighth period. While he continued to wait, several other students came to the office and picked up their belongings, the lawsuit charges. Jerry approached the dean’s office to knock on the door. School police were called. He later got his hat back, but was suspended for five days and involuntarily transferred to Tierra del Sol High School, an alternative school with fewer education options that is a school of last resort for students who are not succeeding.
The settlement also calls for twice-yearly Community Forums to be held, during which the district will report to community members its discipline data, school climate survey results, staff training and progress on adopting alternative approaches to school discipline, including social and emotional skill building and restorative practices that allow students to make amends for harms they have caused.
“The forums will allow community members, who for years have been trying to meet with the district to talk about these issues, to talk about all of the data,” said Allison Elgart, legal director of the Equal Justice Society. Other groups joining the lawsuit were the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, the National Brotherhood Association, Faith in Kern, Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance and the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
Said Lyndsi Andreas, staff attorney at Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, “While nothing can ever make up for the trauma and struggles experienced by the parent and student plaintiffs, we believe this settlement will bring incredible improvements to the culture and environment of the Kern High School District and ensure future students do not experience the same discrimination within the district.”