A sweeping lawsuit filed in Kern County, Calif., late last week alleges that African-American and Latino high school students suffer discrimination from disciplinary practices that remove them at disproportionate rates from regular school and place them in inferior alternative settings.
The Center for Public Integrity in 2011 reported that Kern County, in the Golden State’s Central Valley, had the highest rate of student expulsion in California, not just on a per capita basis, but actually numerically higher than populous Los Angeles County.
In 2013, the Center and KQED radio reported that Kern County kids, among them Hispanic children of farmworkers, were removed from regular school for minor reasons and placed in alternative schools so far from home — as much as 40 miles away — that many kids dropped out or were told to perform independent study at home.
Hundreds of expelled kids, including English-as-second-language learners, were placed on independent study while officially enrolled full-time on alternative campuses, records showed. Because Kern resident Mario Ramirez was unable to get his daughter to a distant alternative school, he sent the 14-year-old to Mexico just to get her in a classroom for a few months during a year-long expulsion.
The lawsuit filed Thursday names Ramirez and other kids and parents featured in Center stories as plaintiffs; the suit alleges that in spite of parents’ meetings in recent months with the local school board to urge changes, officials “have failed to take any effective action to require that Kern High School District develop and implement discipline and school assignment plans that ameliorate the rampant racial and ethnic disparities in the district.”
Black and Latino students “routinely assigned” to independent study receive “only minimal interaction with school personnel and other students,” according to the suit, and fall behind academically.
The suit was filed in Kern County Superior Court in the Kern city of Bakersfield, which is north of Los Angeles in an area of oil drilling and some of the world’s most productive agribusiness fields.
Groups filing the suit demanding adoption of alternative discipline and student transfer practices include California Rural Legal Assistance, or CRLA, a nonprofit that has represented Kern kids in school disputes; the nonprofit Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF; the nonprofit Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, Inc.; the Dolores Huerta Foundation, a Kern County group that organizes parents; Faith in Action Kern County, a multi-faith group that also works with families; and the Equal Justice Society, a nonprofit concerned with racial equity that is based in Oakland.
The suit was filed against the 35,000-pupil Kern High School District, California’s second largest high school district. Its student body is 62 percent Latino and 6 percent black. The suit also names as defendants the district’s trustees; the Kern County Office of Education, which runs alternative campuses; and the California Department of Education.
Lisa Krch, the district’s public information and communications manager, said the Kern High School District “cannot comment on pending litigation.”