BAKERSFIELD, CA – A ruling last week by the Kern County Superior Court denied the Kern High School District’s (KHSD) request to dismiss the discrimination lawsuit filed against it by Latino and Black students.
The Plaintiffs, including parents and students in the Kern High School District and community activist organizations Dolores Huerta Foundation, National Brotherhood Association, and Faith in Action – Kern County, brought the lawsuit against the Kern High School District, Kern County Office of Education, the California Department of Education, and the State to challenge discriminatory discipline and transfer policies that push African American and Latino students out of district schools and into alternative schools that provide fewer opportunities.
The Plaintiffs are represented by a coalition of civil rights legal advocates, including MALDEF, California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (CRLA, Inc.), Equal Justice Society (EJS), Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, Inc. (GBLA), and Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati (WSGR).
The Kern County Superior Court denied the KHSD’s attempt to dismiss the case in its entirety and allowed the majority of claims in the lawsuit to go forward against the district, including its Board of Trustees and Superintendent Bryon Schaefer (“District Defendants”).
In particular, the Court ruled that the allegations of past and present discriminatory conduct on the part of the District Defendants could remain in the lawsuit. However, the Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ Second Cause of Action, which claims that the District violated the “Free Schools Guarantee” of the California Constitution by denying students in alternative schools the basic quality of education to which they are entitled. The court also limited the claims that could be pursued by some of the parent Plaintiffs.
Although the ruling allows for the litigation to proceed, and directs the Plaintiffs to file an amended complaint in 20 days, the Court ordered a stay of the case proceedings pending a ruling on the Plaintiffs’ appeal of the dismissal of the State of California from the case, which is currently pending before the Fifth District Court of Appeals.
Plaintiffs intend to seek clarification from the Superior Court and a lift of the stay for purposes of continuing to prepare the case for trial through formal discovery. Depositions had commenced in Bakersfield this week in the discovery phase of the case, however, Defendant KHSD has refused to allow the depositions to be completed or allow further new discovery based on the Court’s stay.
Plaintiffs allege there is a long history of discriminatory practices that has resulted in the disproportionate expulsion and involuntary transfer of African American and Latino students. When the disproportionality was brought to the District’s attention, the District changed its reporting practices and method of addressing discipline so that students are involuntarily transferred or forced to waive their hearing rights in order to stay in some kind of school setting, which often fails to meet the students’ educational needs. As a result, they end up in the same alternative schools that expelled students are sent to and on the same path to nowhere.
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, or transferred to alternative schools than the general school population. An equal or greater number of African American students and Latino students are being forced to spend time in alternative schools even while KHSD claims progress due to the decrease in expulsions. The numbers look different, but the result is that substantially similar numbers of African-American and Latino students are pushed out of regular school settings and assigned to alternative schools that fail to meet their needs or deliver a quality education.
Plaintiffs are disappointed by the dismissal of the California free schools cause of action. “It is outrageous that the District believes that it has no obligation to meet a minimum standard of education under the California constitution,” said Martha Gomez of MALDEF. “This is inconsistent with the very notion of the fundamental right to education and threatens students in all schools, but particularly those in economically challenged areas. We will vigorously oppose that view in our appeal of the dismissal of the State of California and ultimately as to the District Defendants as well.”
Cynthia L. Rice, Director of Litigation, Advocacy and Training at CRLA, Inc., commented on the school district’s change in practice from excessive expulsions to excessive transfers: “Parents and students should know that it’s a smoke and mirrors tactic implemented by the District to hide the truth. These are not “waivers” or “voluntary transfers.” These are placements that result from the same flawed discipline practices. Parents are coerced to “agree” to a transfer because the only alternative the District gives them is to have their child denied the right to attend any school for 45 days or more while they await a hearing. Our clients want this practice stopped and replaced by a system that responsibly addresses student behavior and needs.”