Civil Rights Groups Sue Kern County School District Over Discipline

Erick Araujo, 13, was expelled from a Lost Hills middle school in Kern County. (John Harte/For the Center for Public Integrity)

A coalition of civil rights groups are suing a Kern County high school district over disciplinary actions they say unfairly target black and Latino students.

Five years ago, the Kern High School District suspended nearly 12,000 students and expelled more than 2,000. That’s more than any other school district in California. Roughly 75 percent of those kids were black or Latino, around 20 percent were white.

“When the numbers came out it was obvious that Kern County was expelling and suspending Latinos and blacks at disproportionate rates than whites,” said Martha Gomez, staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

MALDEF is one of several civil rights organizations suing the Kern High School District over its student discipline practices.

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According to statistics cited in the lawsuit, expulsions and suspensions in the district have plummeted in recent years. But plaintiffs say school administrators are merely shuffling “problem” students into alternative education settings where academic oversight is lax.

Last year The California Report in collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity talked to Kern County public school students who were pulled from the classroom for a range of relatively minor infractions and placed in alternative education settings with little or no regular follow-up from teachers or administrators.

MALDEF’s Martha Gomez said parents are often pressured into avoiding an expulsion hearing, and accept an "involuntary transfer" to an alternative school or home study. She said parents are told a suspension will last just a few days, and to sign the form.

“Then they come back and the district is like, 'Well, your kid has to go to community school you signed the paper saying that,' which is the same thing as an expulsion,” Gomez said.

Plaintiffs are seeking changes that include alternative discipline practices that would allow a child to remain in a classroom, and staff training that would assure racial neutrality.

A Kern High School District spokesperson said the district cannot comment on the pending litigation.