Education Lab

Fresno Unified a ‘hostile environment for black students,’ ACLU says

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California addressed Fresno Unified board members Wednesday evening, calling the district a “hostile environment for black students” and demanding it take action.

“From what we have seen from our clients and what we have seen from news articles, the district has a history of marginalizing black student and parent voices,” said Abre’ Conner, a staff attorney at ACLU’s Fresno office.

The visit from the ACLU came in response to a photo and video posted on social media on May 23 of a Bullard High student. In the video, the girl is in blackface and says, “Who said I can’t say (racial slur)?”

The girl’s family has since released an apology statement.

Conner also pointed to several other incidents at Fresno Unified that she said have cemented it as a place where black students are not welcome.

In 2017, the yearbook at Computech Middle School had to be reprinted after a page was decorated with Confederate flags and the Ku Klux Klan symbol.

A Scandinavian Middle School vice principal was recorded in 2015 saying, “I just don’t like the black kids,” and was put on administrative leave. He returned to work at the district.

Last year, an honor roll student at Tenaya Middle School was taken out of class for his hairstyle.

Letter from the ACLU

Earlier in the day, Conner addressed a letter to board President Claudia Cazares, outlining recommendations for making schools more inclusive. The recommendations include creating an official process to handle harassment and discrimination, making cultural awareness and history classes mandatory, training teachers and staff, and committing to restorative justice and positive behavior methods.

The ACLU said each recommendation should be put into place with input from black students and the community.

Conner says black students throughout Fresno Unified suffer disproportionately more than other students when being disciplined, and Bullard High is the worst offender. Citing California Department of Education statistics, she said suspension rates for black students at Bullard were at 21.8% in the 2017-2018 year, compared to a district-wide 16.9%.

Board member Genoveva Islas asked for input via a Facebook post on Wednesday when she addressed the Bullard High incident.

“There are larger cultural contexts in this school and in our community that created space for this to happen,” she said. “So the broader question that we have to grapple with as a district is what we do to combat anti-black racism and ensure that we create safe environments and advantages for our African-American student success.”

Parent Elisha Henderson appeared at the board meeting on Wednesday to talk about what she says is Fresno Unified’s lack of accountability and cultural awareness.

She said her daughter, a sophomore at Bullard, shared a class with the girl seen in the social media photo.

“The recent incident at Bullard High School has caused a myriad of emotions to go through my home,” Henderson said.

Although her daughter was able to share her initial thoughts when the school had a meeting with parents and students, “that was a small piece of her experience,” Henderson said. “My daughter said she heard a lot of promises and she was waiting on action.”

Ashleigh Panoo: 559-441-6010, @AshleighPanoo