By Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN
A California school district is vowing to reform its discipline practices after a federal investigation revealed it was giving harsher punishment to Black students compared to White students who displayed similar behavior.
Officials from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights say the Victor Valley Union High School District in southern California’s San Bernardino County committed a pattern of discriminatory practices toward Black students that violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The department and school district reached a resolution earlier this month in which Victor Valley committed to a series of changes that will be put into place this school year including cultural sensitivity training for staff, conducting school climate surveys and hiring a director with expertise in nondiscriminatory discipline practices.
Federal education officials say they began their investigation in 2014 after seeing higher rates of suspensions, expulsions and other punishments in Victor Valley compared to other districts in California. Within that data, Black students were being punished more frequently and more severely, officials say. The department also interviewed employees, students and parents who reported witnessing school district staff unfairly target Black students.
For example, school administrators issued law enforcement citations to students through a program called “Clean Sweep” that required the youth to appear in juvenile court. According to the Office of Civil Rights, witnesses say that the program disproportionately punished Black students. Black students were also punished more severely than White students for dress code violations, “being loud,” “inappropriate behavior” and truancy.
Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights, called the discriminatory practices “profoundly harmful” and sending the message that Black students are less valued than their White classmates.
Lhamon said one alarming finding was that a White student could commit the same or worse offense as a Black student and still receive a lighter punishment.
Case in point, in the 2018-19 school year a Black 7th grader was skipping class but a staff member wrote the student up as creating a “hostile environment” and he was suspended, Lhamon said. It was that student’s first attendance referral for the school year.
A White 8th grader at the same school, however, skipped class, was written up for truancy and received an after-school detention, Lhamon said. It was his fourth attendance referral that year.
“What we do when we do that to kids is we teach them that they don’t count,” Lhamon said. “We teach them that their schools are not ready for them, that their schools don’t believe in them, and that our community isn’t there for them. That’s absolutely the worst message that we can send from schools.”
And research shows it’s a nationwide problem.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), Black students are subjected to harsher discipline than White students and it can hinder their academic success and damage their perceptions of school.
Reseachers from the APA found in one study that Black students who were suspended for minor infractions had significantly lower grades than students who weren’t suspended.
‘It has to be equal’
Victor Valley Superintendent Elvin Momon acknowledged that the district’s disciplinary practices have been unfair to Black students. Momon said there was a “lack of oversight” and a “lack of accountability” in the school district before the Office of Civil Rights completed its investigation.
Momon, who retired from the district in 2014 but was reappointed superintendent in June, said in addition to the changes outlined in the resolution he wants to see the district review its hiring practices. The staff, he said, should reflect the racial makeup of the students.
District enrollment for the 2020-21 school year was roughly 7% White, 17% Black, and 68% Latino. Momon said the staff was about 47% White, 26% Latino and 13% Black.
Momon said he views cultural sensitivity training for staff — including campus security — as a pivotal to correcting the discrimination. Staff members needs to consider a student’s full profile, including their home environment, before deciding on discipline, he said. And this process needs to be the same for youth of all races, he said.
“You can’t treat our kids in a disparate way,” Momon said. “It has to be equal.”
Momon also wants to bring in staff who can serve as role models and mentors to youth.
“Kids can sense when you don’t really care about them,” Momon said.
The resolution for Victor Valley was praised by civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“We hope the news of the agreement between the government and the Victor Valley Union High School District puts other school districts engaged in discriminatory discipline practices on notice that such conduct is unlawful and will not be tolerated,” the Legal Defense Fund said in a statement.
Michaele Turnage Young, senior counsel for the Legal Defense Fund, said racist disciplinary practices against Black students are common across the country. In many cases, Black students are being harshly disciplined for nonviolent behavior such as disruption, disrespect or dress code violations, she said. Young said school districts need to make more efforts to clarify school policies with staff and ensure they are being consistently and fairly enforced.
“Unfortunately, we are well aware of the phenomenon of racially discriminatory school discipline,” Young said. “Unfortunately, like driving while Black, going to school while Black does mean being at a higher risk of being removed from class as a result of the selective application of subjective rules.”
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