Kern County school sys­tem set­tles law­suit

District agrees to ad­dress con­cerns that mi­nor­ity stu­dents are pun­ished at high rate.

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Joy Resmovits joy.resmovits@la­times.com

Keschel Collins Sher­man wanted her kids to grow up in bet­ter cir­cum­stances than she did.

So the child-care worker and mother of six moved to Bak­ers­field and sent her son Jerry Reagor to the city’s Foothill High School.

On his way to school, Jerry, then 17, was threat­ened and in­jured by gang mem­bers. She said she tried to get help from po­lice and the school’s dean, but they blamed the vi­o­lence on Jerry — and said he was in a gang.

The tar­get­ing, she said, grew from there. The dean told her son that she hoped she wouldn’t see his body, dead in an al­ley, on the evening news. In­stead of send­ing him to the school coun­selor, she told him to go to a bas­ket­ball coach for guid­ance.

One day, the dean con­fis­cated Jerry’s hat. Af­ter school, when he went to get it back, staff called the po­lice. Jerry was sus­pended for five days and then trans­ferred to an al­ter­na­tive school. A re­strain­ing or­der banned him from Foothill’s cam­pus.

“It was an em­bar­rass­ment,” Collins Sher­man said. “My son was hurt, and that hurt me. He’s one of my best kids.”

She called a le­gal aid group and ul­ti­mately be­came part of a 2014 suit that ac­cused Kern High School District of dis­pro­por­tion­ately dis­ci­plin­ing stu­dents of color. The district set­tled the suit in Kern County Su­pe­rior Court last week, promis­ing to cre­ate new dis­ci­pline poli­cies with help from ex­perts on un­con­scious racial bias and to sched­ule con­tin­ued train­ing for teach­ers on less puni­tive tech­niques to min­i­mize dis­rup­tions. Most of the 19 pe­ti­tion­ers will get $5,000 each to fur­ther their or their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion.

The agree­ment also man­dates that the district hold two com­mu­nity fo­rums a year to re­port on school dis­ci­pline data and stu­dent sur­veys. It out­lines strict pro­ce­dures for in­form­ing par­ents of dis­ci­plinary ac­tions and po­lice re­fer­rals, and re­quires that stu­dents who are sus­pended for an ex­tended pe­riod pend­ing a hear­ing get full ac­cess to school­work. The court has ju­ris­dic­tion over the agree­ment, but it lasts for only three years.

The district did not ad­mit to any wrong­do­ing and said it agreed to the set­tle­ment in or­der to stop spend­ing money on le­gal fees.

The district posted an ex­ten­sive on­line state­ment stress­ing that the set­tle­ment sim­ply lays out the work that it al­ready is do­ing. “Set­tle­ment or no set­tle­ment, law­suit or no law­suit, Kern High School District was started down this path be­fore this law­suit was ever filed,” said As­sis­tant Supt. of In­struc­tion Brenda Lewis. She said the district started train­ing teach­ers in pos­i­tive be­hav­ior in­ter­ven­tions and sup­port in 2013, and that it can take up to 10 years for school dis­tricts to im­ple­ment new strate­gies fully.

But some teach­ers told at­tor­neys that the train­ing has been scat­ter­shot, said Cyn­thia Rice, di­rec­tor of lit­i­ga­tion, ad­vo­cacy and train­ing for Cal­i­for­nia Ru­ral Le­gal As­sis­tance, one of the groups be­hind the suit.

Cal­i­for­nia Ru­ral Le­gal As­sis­tance and other com­mu­nity groups, in­clud­ing the Dolores Huerta Foun­da­tion and Faith in Ac­tion Kern County, filed the com­plaint, cit­ing fed­eral data show­ing that in the 2009-10 school year, the district re­ported 2,205 ex­pul­sions — more than any other Cal­i­for­nia school district.

Ac­cord­ing to the suit, 4% of Latino stu­dents and 4% of black stu­dents were as­signed to al­ter­na­tive or con­tin­u­a­tion schools, twice the per­cent­age of white stu­dents. The district re­ported a steep de­cline in ex­pul­sions in the 2013-14 school year, but they still dis­pro­por­tion­ately ap­plied to mi­nor­ity stu­dents.

School dis­tricts na­tion­wide are tack­ling school dis­ci­pline, an is­sue the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion spot­lighted by re­leas­ing an­nual re­ports on how many stu­dents — and which ones — schools sus­pended or ex­pelled. L.A. Uni­fied banned sus­pen­sions for “will­ful de­fi­ance,” but its teach­ers have com­plained of not be­ing ad­e­quately trained in al­ter­na­tive meth­ods of dis­ci­pline — and thus be­ing ill-equipped to han­dle class­room dis­rup­tions.

Although the nearly 50page Kern County set­tle­ment de­tails steps that the school district should take, it does not in­clude spe­cific goals for clos­ing the school dis­ci­pline gap. “We’re look­ing at this strate­gi­cally and then the num­bers will take care of them­selves,” Lewis said.

Dianne Piché, a for­mer fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cial tasked with civil rights en­force­ment, said the set­tle­ment doesn’t go as far as other past agree­ments be­tween school dis­tricts and the U.S. Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment’s Of­fice for Civil Rights. “There are usu­ally more ex­ten­sive re­quire­ments for staff train­ing,” Piché said.

Rice, of Cal­i­for­nia Ru­ral Le­gal As­sis­tance, said the set­tle­ment marked a step in the right di­rec­tion. “Like any kind of civil rights move­ment, this takes time,” she said.

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