Despite Promises, Schools Don’t Seem to Learn Lesson on Racism
By Otis R.Taylor Jr.
Last spring, a black senior at Redwood High School in Visalia (Tulare County) was called “n—” and other racially derogatory names by white students.
A junior at the same school, who played on the football team, was told by a white teammate that he needed to “act more hood” because he was black.
A black student at Linwood Elementary School was suspended for defending himself after a white student spit water in his face.
These are just three examples of the racially hostile environment black students say they’ve endured while enrolled at Visalia Unified School District schools. According to a federal administrative complaint filed last month on behalf of 10 black students by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, white students have told black classmates to go hang from trees.
They have have been called “coon,” “monkey” and “jigaboo.”
The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, alleges the school district has failed to stop the harassment — and instead enables the hostile environment for black students. The complaint says that the school district also perpetuates a high rate of discipline for black students while not disciplining white classmates who harass black students.
Abre’ Conner, the ACLU attorney who prepared the complaint, told me the black students want the Office of Civil Rights to investigate the district’s policies and practices regarding racial hostility. They also want a review of the disproportionate discipline rates for black students.
In 2015, black students, who then made up 1.6 percent of the district’s population, received 14 percent of out-of-school suspensions in the school district. White students, who that year made up 22 percent of the enrollment population, received less than 4 percent of out-of-school suspensions.
“The data clearly shows that African American kids are disciplined at a higher rate than other kids,” District Superintendent Todd Oto told me. “The biggest possible takeaway from this, whether the complaints are founded or not founded, is that we’ve got kids that don’t feel comfortable on our campus(es). And that we’re not listening to them as deeply as we should.”
The district should be disturbed by these allegations. I asked Oto if he thinks the school district has created a hostile environment for black students. Does he believe the students?
“That, I would think, is their perspective, because that’s what they’re relating here,” he said. “Our intent isn’t that.”
Oto told me the district has a reporting policy for staff who receive notice of hate-motivated behavior or who personally observe such behavior. He said the district responds when students get called derogatory names. The response is supposed to include following up with the student who makes a complaint.
But an incident cited by the ACLU complaint says otherwise.
In May 2017, a black high school student saw a Confederate flag drawn over a black student’s face on Snapchat, a social media app, according to the complaint. The student emailed her school administration and Oto, writing that she had noticed “a huge increase in racial and political tension at her school.” The student said she’s been called a “black bitch” by a white student, and she said white students shout “white power” to intimidate black students.
Nobody from the district responded to her email, according to the complaint.
I asked Oto about whether he received the emailed complaint.
“I’m not saying that it didn’t happen, but I don’t recall that coming through,” Oto said.
This isn’t the first time the district has been accused of failing to protect students from harassment. In 2006, two black teens sued the district, saying it created a racially hostile environment at Golden West High School. The case was settled, and the district promised to make changes, including sensitivity training for staff and implementing a new reporting process for complaints.
“The incidents in the current complaint are almost identical to the ones in the federal civil rights lawsuit I brought 12 years ago,” Douglas Hurt, the Visalia attorney who represented the teens in 2006, told me.
He’s not shocked that black students are complaining about being mistreated at school.
“In the last three years, bigotry has been given a free rein,” he said, alluding to the 2016 presidential campaign and election. “The latent bigotry has been given a voice again. It’s like the boil has been lanced again, and we’re seeing it around the country.”
Of the almost 29,000 students enrolled in the school district, less than 2 percent are black. According to the complaint, the district has continuously heard from students and community groups, who have spoken during at least three school board meetings in the past year, that it needs to address racial hostility.
According to Civil Rights Data Collection report, published by the Office of Civil Rights in April, black students accounted for only 15 percent of students in public schools in the country during the 2015-16 academic year. Yet 35 percent of students who reported being bullied or harassed because of race were black.
Deborah Cohan, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort who teaches and writes about race, said racial hostility in schools emerges from racist ideology in the larger society.
“What is going on in Visalia is a microcosm of what is felt across the nation in terms of chasms along racial lines,” Cohan said. “When racist beliefs and principles exist in human interactions and are backed by racist practices and policies in our various institutions, and especially in our public schools, there is reason for grave concern.”
How could this happen only 12 years after the district was sued because black students were racially harassed?
“The administration just doesn’t get the seriousness of this. They just don’t get it,” Hurt said. “I don’t know if they just don’t care (or) if it’s not high on the priority list.”
Culled from San Francisco Chronicle