Through a settlement reached with the ACLU of Northern California, the Antioch Unified School District has agreed to undertake a comprehensive series of steps designed to prevent discrimination against African-American and Latino students in school discipline; ensure that school administrators and staff protect students from race-based harassment by their peers; and stem the over-involvement of police officers in the handling of student misconduct, among other goals outlined in the settlement. The settlement agreement was ratified by the district’s board at the June 24 board meeting.
The district and the ACLU began working together to reach the settlement after the ACLU brought a number of issues to the district’s attention, including the following:
• Records obtained from the district by the ACLU through a Public Records Act request revealed extreme disparities in the rates at which African-American and Latino students were disciplined in comparison to their peers during each of the last five school years. For example, at Deer Valley High School, African-American students were suspended four times more frequently than white students, and Latino students were suspended twice as frequently as white students during the 2006-2007 school year. The suspension statistics from Antioch High School, as well as the expulsion statistics for both high schools, showed similar disparities. Furthermore, records obtained from the district demonstrated that, in many cases, students were suspended or expelled in violation of the California Education Code and other state and federal laws.
• Statistics from the California Healthy Kids Survey obtained by the ACLU demonstrated that racial harassment of students by their peers is extremely common in the district’s schools. In 2008, 29 percent of seventh-graders, 26 percent of ninth-graders, and 18 percent of 11th-graders attending schools in the district reported that they had been harassed on the basis of race at school within the previous 12 months. Furthermore, reports from students and parents indicated that, even where racial harassment was overt and even violent, school staff did not do enough to protect students who were the victims of such harassment.
• The ACLU was also very concerned about the frequency with which district officials have involved law enforcement in responding to minor acts of misconduct by students, often resulting in serious and unnecessary criminal consequences for students involved in run-of-the-mill schoolyard altercations and non-criminal misconduct.
The enforceable settlement agreement includes:
• Provisions for strengthening anti-discrimination and harassment policies.
• Modifications to disciplinary procedures and policies that will ensure compliance with the California Education Code.
• Trainings for staff designed to ensure that staff is not discriminating against students in the context of school discipline.
• Trainings for staff members on how to appropriately respond when they witness students being harassed by their peers.
• Updating curriculum to include the issues of tolerance, diversity and culture.
• Revising the district’s contract with the Antioch Police Department to better define and limit the role of police officers assigned to school campuses.
“All school districts have the responsibility to ensure that their schools are free from harassment and discrimination, and that students of all backgrounds are given the same opportunities to learn and to thrive,” said Greta Hansen, an attorney at ACLU of Northern California. “The school district’s pro-active response to the problems we brought to their attention, combined with the newly-agreed-upon policies and procedures, are steps in the right direction toward improving the educational experience for all Antioch students, particularly African-American and Latino students.”
According to AUSD Board President Walter Ruehlig, “It is in the best interest of the district and all of its students to work together to improve the district’s policies, procedures and curriculum in order to resolve the ACLU’s concerns without litigation. We are confident in the ability of our staff, students and parents to work together, now and in the years to come, to promote a positive climate that engenders respect and equal treatment for all students.”
The enforceable settlement agreement, which allows both the district and the ACLU to avoid potentially costly and protracted litigation, includes five years of monitoring. During that time, the ACLU will work with the district to ensure that all of the reforms contained in the agreement are carried out, and that no concerns remain related to violations of equal protection and due process, the California Constitution or the California Education Code.
“While many of the problems occurring in the district’s schools were particularly severe, violations of students’ civil rights like those uncovered in Antioch are part of a more widespread phenomenon occurring in many other school districts in California,” said Hansen. “We are hopeful that this settlement agreement will ensure that all of Antioch’s 19,000 students are treated equally and fairly, and that other districts will likewise begin transforming their policies and practices in order to resolve similar problems.”