BAKERSFIELD, CA – On December 31, 2015, the Kern County Superior Court ruled that Latino and Black Plaintiffs may proceed against the Kern County Office of Education and Superintendent Christine Lizardi Frazier with their claims that the agency and Superintendent failed to take steps to ensure that students in the Kern High School District (KHSD) and alternative schools run by the Kern COE were not subjected to discrimination and denied equal educational opportunity. Parents and students enrolled in the Kern High School District and community activist organizations Dolores Huerta Foundation, National Brotherhood Association, and Faith in Action Kern County brought the action against the State as well as the Kern High School District and Kern County Office of Education; plaintiffs are represented by a coalition of civil rights legal advocates and pro bono counsel, including MALDEF, California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., Equal Justice Society, and Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, Inc., and Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati.
The goal of the lawsuit is to correct the current discipline practices and transfer policies to eliminate the disproportionate suspensions, expulsions and transfers of students of color; to foster a safe environment with effective discipline responses; and to improve student educational access.
The Kern High School District, located in California’s Central Valley, has a student population that is 62 percent Latino and 6.3 percent African American. Over the last five years, discriminatory school assignment policies have made it far more likely for Latino and African American students to be suspended, expelled, and assigned to alternative schools operated by the Kern High School District or Kern County Office of Education. The complaint alleges that the enrollment of Blacks and Latinos in these alternative schools is much higher than their enrollment in the general school population.
The complaint alleges that Kern County Office of Education alternative schools offer significantly inferior opportunities for achievement and student success; and that students are more likely to fail to graduate on time or drop out altogether and cannot complete the course work necessary to enroll in college. Plaintiffs argue that Kern County Office of Education, through its approval of the budget, Local Control Accountability Plan, development of the county discipline plan and other oversight obligations, had the opportunity to act in a manner that would address Kern High School District’s discriminatory practices and the inferior educational opportunities made available to Latinos and Blacks, but failed to do so. The Superior Court’s ruling allows Plaintiffs to proceed with their claim that this failure violated students’ constitutional and statutory rights to be protected from discrimination and guaranteed a free general public education.
California education standards and policies are established by the state and implemented by local schools, districts and County Offices of Education. “We believe that the County Office of Education knew that African American and Latino students were denied their fundamental right to a basic educational opportunity by being subjected to practices that resulted in discrimination on account of their race or national origin. Under California law, each of these state and local actors is responsible and accountable to take every step within their power to ensure that discrimination is challenged and eliminated and must be held accountable for failing to do so,” said Cynthia L. Rice, of California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., attorney for some of the student and parent plaintiffs.
“Every county office of education in the State of California has the legal obligation to ensure that all children in its districts are receiving a constitutionally adequate education, and Kern County Office of Education is no exception,” said Martha L. Gomez, a staff attorney with MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund). “We are pleased that the court recognized the right of the Kern community to seek reform and redress from the Kern County Office of Education for its failure to ensure equal educational opportunity for Latino and African American students.”
“Disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of Latino and Black students are caused in part by implicit biases about students of color by Kern County school district administrators and teachers,” said Christopher Bridges of the Equal Justice Society. “Stereotypes, racial anxiety, and other manifestations of unconsciously held negative views of Blacks and Latinos lead to discipline or involuntary transfers to alternate schools and doom many of these students to academic failure.”
“The disproportionate discipline policies and practices implemented by Kern High School District contribute to the push-out of Black and Latino students from our schools and perpetuate the School-to-Prison Pipeline in our community,” said Lyndsi Andreas of GBLA. “The Court’s ruling is an important step toward holding the Kern County Office of Education responsible for their failure to address discriminatory practices within the Kern High School District.”