Black and Latinx students are disproportionately harmed by the state’s failure to exert oversight and take action against some school district disciplinary practices, including transferring students to alternative and often inferior programs, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by parents and an advocacy group.
The suit alleges that students of color continue to be overrepresented in expulsion and suspension rates reported by school districts annually and that the state has not done enough to address the disparity. It also alleges that lax state intervention and reporting policies allow school districts to mask some disciplinary practices by transferring students to alternative schools, where honors and advanced placement courses are not often offered and college-required courses may not always be available.
State policy requires school districts to publicly report expulsions and suspensions, but not student transfers.
Tony Thurmond, state superintendent of public instruction, and the California Department of Education are named as defendants in the suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
A spokesperson from the education department declined to comment on the suit, which he said officials have not yet reviewed.
The plaintiffs, which include parents in Kern and Los Angeles counties and an advocacy group called Black Parallel School Board, are asking the court to force the state to increase oversight of school districts by addressing what they allege are discriminatory disciplinary practices, including informal suspensions and transfers.
“The students are the ones who lose because no one is playing that oversight role to ensure they’re having equal access to education,” said Sahar Durali, an attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles who is representing the plaintiffs.
Since 2015, the statewide expulsion and suspension rates have trended downward, according to state data.
The lawsuit cites the Antelope Valley Union High School District, which serves students in Lancaster and Palmdale. The district reported 61 expulsions during the 2018-19 school year, similar to the state’s trend. Black students were overrepresented in those expelled, the lawsuit alleges.
But after compiling data through public records requests, the lawsuit alleges the district transferred 573 students to alternative schools, but did not publicly report the actions, which is not required by the state.
District officials did not respond to inquiries for comment Wednesday.
The suit alleges districts have pressured some parents into signing waivers that give up their child’s right to an expulsion hearing, allowing districts to label cases as “voluntary transfers.” Districts also label disciplinary actions as “involuntary transfers” or “expulsions by another name” when moving students initially referred for expulsion from general education into an alternative learning setting, according to the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs alleged this allows school districts to report low expulsion rates to disguise the “disparate treatment” of Black and Latinx students and evade responsibility.
School districts maintain the authority to set transfer policies, but the plaintiffs said in the suit that the state education department has “failed to exercise any meaningful oversight of waivers and has failed to create reporting requirements for voluntary transfers or waivers.”
School districts across California are “masking their exclusionary discipline practices,” the suit said, and the state’s top education institution is violating the right of equal protection for students under the state Constitution by failing to safeguard their right to an equal education.
Black students have long encountered excessive school discipline in California, advocates said. Previously, Black parents in the Los Angeles Unified School District accused administrators of sending their children home without a formal suspension, a practice known as “off the book.”
The lawsuit alleges that “off the book” suspensions persist today across the state, and the Education Department has failed to address the disparity in reported suspension rates. During the 2018-19 school year, Black and Latinx students were often overrepresented in reported suspension rates.
During the 2018-19 school year, Black students in the Sacramento City Unified School District received 41.4% of suspensions while they made up 15.5% of the population, the lawsuit alleges. That same year in the Riverside Unified School District, Latinx students received 71% of expulsions but made up 63% of the population.
By failing to monitor districts, the plaintiffs say, the state is further harming students of color, who often deal with far-reaching repercussions from expulsions and suspensions, including lost instructional time and a higher risk of dropping out.
One of the parents suing the state says her son was subjected to an informal suspension in 2019, when campuses were still open for in-person learning. The parent, who lives in Kern County, said her son, who is 9 and has the Section 504 plan that allows for extra support services for students with disabilities, was suspended for not listening to his teacher and “destroying” school property after rubbing his pencil eraser on a chair.
The fourth-grader was suspended for two days, and the parent, who asked to remain anonymous, was not given an opportunity to discuss the suspension with the school, the lawsuit says. She also learned later that her son was suspended during other instances.
During the 2020-21 school year, when schools statewide were remote, the fourth-grader was blocked from attending online classes at least three times, the lawsuit alleges, with the teacher excluding the 9-year-old from online games that were part of the curriculum.
“We, as parents, have been telling them, complaining” about how students are treated, the parent said in an interview. She said the district has not taken the concerns of parents seriously. “We have been overlooked as if it’s not important.”
Her son’s attitude toward school has taken a turn as a result of the suspensions and being yelled at by one of his teachers in front of other students, she said. He used to be excited to go to school, greet his bus driver, but now, she said, it’s “a tough time to get him up and ready for school.”
In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law an expanded ban on the use of “willful defiance” suspensions for elementary and middle school students. Research had shown that such suspensions, which many deemed as arbitrary, have been disproportionately applied to Black students. Suspensions have also been shown to have a detrimental impact on students and their educational paths.
The Black Parallel School Board advocated for the suspension ban and signed onto the Wednesday lawsuit to seek reporting transparency from districts.
“Our parents across the state feel that no one is watching these districts do the right thing,” said Carl Pinkston, operations director for the group. “Our members feel frustrated, angry, and feel that the state of California has failed Black students.”
While the data cited in the complaint were collected before the coronavirus shut down schools for more than a year, Pinkston acknowledged that a lot of students are coming back to the classroom dealing with the trauma inflicted by the pandemic.
But many districts jumped straight into instructional mode instead of a restorative approach to give students time to adjust to a highly structured setting, Pinkston said. With schools flush with federal and state funding, Pinkston said it’s an opportunity for the state to put resources behind increased monitoring on school discipline.
“This is one step, one brick, one piece, along a long road to really bring about transformation in the education system,” Pinkston said.
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