Lawsuit claims discipline discrimination at Kern High School District

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - The Kern High School District has been hit with a lawsuit, claiming it has discipline policies that discriminate against Latino and African-American students.

Several parents and organizations filed the legal action Thursday in Kern County Superior Court.

The district has said they've worked on these issues, and have met with the organizations. But, groups say they are not satisfied.

"A disproportionate number of African-American children and Latino children are not given the equal access to education opportunities that they deserve," California Rural Legal Assistance attorney Cynthia Rice said. She says while the KHSD says they're lowering the rate of expulsion, high numbers of minority students still face unfair discipline.

She said the 56-page legal action challenges the discipline and involuntary transfer policies in the district. It claims that pushes too many too many Hispanic and black students out of the general education setting into alternative settings like community school, continuation school and independent study.

Rice says those alternate settings put the students on a "path to nowhere."

The groups' suit says in the 2009-'10 school year KHSD reported 2,205 expulsions, which they say was the highest actual number of expulsions in the state. More expulsions than even much bigger school districts.

KHSD says they've dramatically cut the number of expulsions, but the organizations remain unconvinced.

In addition to CRLA, Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Dolores Huerta Foundation, and Faith in Action Kern County are part of the legal action.

Faith in Action Executive Director Bud Kaicher said his members voted unanimously to be involved.

"We feel that we've done everything possible to collaborate with the Kern High School District, and we feel their response has been minimal," Kaicher said Thursday. He said they've expressed their deep concerns over the "disproportionate number" of minority students "denied access" to education.

"Our sense is that we haven't been taken seriously," Kaicher said, "and that now is the time for action."

Last month, KHSD Assistant Superintendent Brenda Lewis told Eyewitness News the district was working on the concerns.

"We have heard from the state that we do have -- have a higher rate of suspension and expulsion for these minority students, and we're addressing the issues," Lewis said. She also said the district planned meetings with the organizations.

On Monday, administrators told the KHSD board of trustees the number of expulsions had dropped dramatically. The CRLA attorney calls the numbers "smoke and mirrors."

"You need to look behind these numbers and see what's happening to the same type of children," Rice says, referring to minority students. "What we find is there's not any significant difference in the real number of kids who are being taken out of the general education system and put into alternative schools."

The groups argue that's an inferior education.

"Students who receive harsh discipline and are transferred out of a general school setting are also more likely to dropout. Less likely to graduate on time, if at all, and are less likely to attend or complete college or post-high school vocational training," reads the lawsuit.

David Williams also spoke up on Thursday, challenging how the district disciplines minority students and the outcome.

"I'm here for that community that's out there dying because people like the school district are throwing them out, and not taking responsibility and doing what they're supposed to," he said.

Williams is with the National Brotherhood Association, and says he works in the community and tries to steer kids away from trouble like gang violence. He charges that when students are not in regular school, they end up spending more times "on the streets," and are at greater risk for heading into trouble.

Williams also takes the district to task over what he sees as their approach to discipline.

"Adolescent development is what we all have been through," he argues. Williams thinks students acting out in school need more guidance.

Faith in Action's Bud Kaicher agrees.

"Our education system must be a place that's not punitive, and that punishes students for their adolescent mistakes and errors," Kaicher said. "It must be a place where there is restorative justice, where our students are taught to value healing, second chances, and where they can learn from their mistakes."

Virginia Melchor is a parent who's part of the lawsuit. Speaking in Spanish she said her son got in trouble, and the family was told he had a 5-day suspension. But, when they took him back to school after that period, the family was told the son had to go to a community school, and that the father had signed a one-year expulsion waiver.

Melchor said her husband didn't understand the paperwork in English, and called the action not fair, and a violation of their rights.

KHSD spokeswoman Lisa Krch provided an official statement to Eyewitness News Thursday afternoon. "The Kern High School District has not seen the lawsuit and cannot comment on pending litigation," the email said.

From Faith in Action, Bud Kaicher said his group thinks there are teachers and administrators in the district who do fine work, but his members still have concerns.

"They also feel strongly that there is a moral imperative to immediately addressing this festering problem, it's gone on way too long, for years now," he said.

The lawsuit also names the Kern County Office of Education, and California Superintendent of Public Education Tom Torlakson, arguing those agencies should have forced KHSD to take appropriate action with discipline.

The suit asks the court to issue orders to force the district to make changes to "end race-based discrimination" in student discipline, and to provide remediation services to students who were disciplined under the current policies.

CRLA attorney Cynthia Rice said she hopes the legal action gets KSHD administrators back to the table for more discussion with the concerned parents and groups.

"And to meaningfully talk about resolution," Rice said, "and having enforceable commitments to resolving the problem that's been in existence here for several years."
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