In response to claims of sustained racial abuse against the two percent of black students who attend the Visalia Unified School District, the ACLU of Northern California has filed a discrimination complaint against the district in court.
The complaint, filed with the Department of Education, charges the district with violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by creating a racially hostile environment. Filed by five Black students on behalf of themselves and other Black students in the district, it also cites racially disparate detention and suspension rates, according to a press release.
Black students at Visalia Unified have been repeatedly harassed and called racial slurs, including the n-word. White students have joked about hanging Black students from trees, promoted a “white power” message, called Black students “slaves,” and worn confederate symbols to school. Complaints by the targeted students themselves and witnesses to the hostility have been consistently ignored by teachers and administrators.
The complaint calls for an investigation into the Visalia Unified School District’s policies and practices. In addition to federal law that prohibits discrimination, the district is also obligated to combat racism under the California Education Code and its own board policies.
Additionally, the complaint offers suggestions that may help remedy the situation, including creating a meaningful process to handle complaints of harassment by students and teachers, enforcing bullying rules, organizing a Black Student Union or other safe spaces for students of color, and requiring staff training on the historical and cultural experiences of Black students.
The ACLU has, since 2006, been fighting on behalf of black students who face hostility in their schools. That year, the organization sent a letter calling on the school district to address racial attacks and harassment. In 2017, after hearing similar stories from more students, the ACLU sent a public comment letter to the district outlining the new incidents of racial hostility.
The district, though paying lip service to rectify the situation, has put no policies in place to address racial discrimination and bias.
“It’s been over a decade since we were made aware of the racial tension and put the school district on notice,” said Abre’ Conner, a staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “The pervasive racial harassment in the Visalia school district goes completely unchallenged by school officials … [and] although there is a discrimination policy in place, it is not enforced to protect Black students.”
Conner adds: “This district has had years to work with us on addressing the racial hostility. Black students are legally entitled to learn in an environment free of discrimination.”