Education

Black students in Visalia faced ‘racial hostility,’ says ACLU complaint

Several images taken from inside a classroom at La Joya Middle School by a student on April 3, 2017 show a Confederate flag hanging from the ceiling. School officials say it was used for educational purposes but it was taken down after a mother raised concerns.
Several images taken from inside a classroom at La Joya Middle School by a student on April 3, 2017 show a Confederate flag hanging from the ceiling. School officials say it was used for educational purposes but it was taken down after a mother raised concerns. cdelgado@fresnobee.com

A federal discrimination complaint filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union alleges black students at Visalia Unified School District endured a “racially hostile environment” and school officials failed to take action to protect them.

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in San Francisco on behalf of five students only identified in the complaint by their initials, and other black students in the district.

The complaint alleges the district violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act for failing to intervene. It also claims black students, who only represent a 2 percent of the district’s population, are disproportionally affected by the district’s suspensions rates, which in certain high schools is high as 11 percent.

The complaint calls for an investigation into the district’s policies and practices.

Visalia Unified School District Superintendent Todd Oto on Wednesday said his office was still reviewing the complaint. “We have just received it, and are looking at it to determine the nature of the complaint and to determine what our next steps are,” he said.

Abre’ Conner, an attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said the ACLU first put the district on notice back in 2006 — and more recently in 2017 — after becoming aware of new incidents.

District officials talked about the alleged incidents internally, but no action was seen, Conner said.

Black students have been called racial slurs that include the “N-word” and “slaves,” according to the ACLU complaint. White students have also joked about hanging black students.

Conner said a white student, wearing a Confederate flag hat, once called a black student the “N-word,” and in a different situation the same student told another black schoolmate, “Oh my bad, monkey.”

The students have been harassed based on the color of their skin and based on their race for at least a decade, if not longer, Conner said. Even though black students only make up a small percentage of the district’s overall population, she said it doesn’t mean “their voices matter any less.”

“This is something that the school district has been aware of,” Conner said. “The school district is not taking their concerns seriously. .. From the evidence that we have heard, this is a systematic problem across the Visalia Unified School District.”

The U.S. Department of Education can require the school district to take certain steps to address the issues in order to continue to receive federal funding, Conner said.

“They can lose all of their federal funding for not complying with requirements,” she said.

The district’s proposed federal fiscal year 2018-19 budget is $19.87 million.

District response

It’s not the first time black students have complained about issues in the district. Last year, the mother of a student at La Joya Middle School complained about a Confederate flag hung from a ceiling. School officials said the flag was for educational purposes to study the Civil War.

The district will need to investigate and re-investigate some of the specific incidents, Superintendent Oto said. The incidents in the complaint, he said, are new to officials at the district level, but might not be for officials at the school level.

There are 40 schools within the district, and each school doesn’t report to the district on individual cases. “What is likely to have occurred is that they have been brought up to the attention of school staff,” he said.

Nonetheless, he said, the district is undertaking efforts, such as the recent establishment of various task forces that will help provide insight of what’s taking place at the school sites. It’s also reviewing the student conduct code.

Issues that were brought to light 10 years ago by the ACLU were addressed, he said. “The incident back in 2006 was something that we certainly learned from and we changed policies as a result of that,” he said.

But students on the ground are still having to deal “with hearing threats on their lives on a daily basis,” which as been frustrating for the ACLU, Conner said.

Now that the issues have escalated to a federal complaint, Conner, said the hope is that the district will began to take responsibility for their legal duty to create a safe environment for black students.

Yesenia Amaro: 559-441-6144; @YeseniaAmaro
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