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Black students in Visalia endured racist hostility, says lawsuit

California

Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 10/25/2018, 11:36 a.m.
California is not typically a place in the news these days over incidents of racial injustice...
ACLU

California is not typically a place in the news these days over incidents of racial injustice. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist in the state. This week, a lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claiming that Black students in the Visalia United School District had to deal with a “racially hostile environment,” failing to take action to protect them, reports the Fresno Bee. The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in San Francisco on behalf of five students only identified in the complaint by their initials, and other Black students in the district. The complaint alleges the district violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act for failing to intervene. It also claims Black students, who only represent 2 percent of the district’s population, are disproportionally affected by the district’s suspensions rates, which in certain high schools is high as 11 percent. The complaint calls for an investigation into the district’s policies and practices. Visalia Unified School District Superintendent Todd Oto on Wednesday said his office was still reviewing the complaint. “We have just received it, and are looking at it to determine the nature of the complaint and to determine what our next steps are,” he said. Abre’ Conner, an attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said the ACLU first put the district on notice back in 2006 — and more recently in 2017 — after becoming aware of new incidents. District officials talked about the alleged incidents internally, but no action was seen, Conner said. Black students have been called racial slurs that include the “N-word” and “slaves,” according to the ACLU complaint. White students have also joked about hanging Black students. Conner said a white student, wearing a Confederate flag hat, once called a Black student the “N-word,” and in a different situation the same student told another Black schoolmate, “Oh my bad, monkey.” The students have been harassed based on the color of their skin and based on their race for at least a decade, if not longer, Conner said. Even though Black students only make up a small percentage of the district’s overall population, she said it doesn’t mean “their voices matter any less. This is something that the school district has been aware of,” Conner said. “The school district is not taking their concerns seriously. From the evidence that we have heard, this is a systematic problem across the Visalia Unified School District.” The U.S. Department of Education can require the school district to take certain steps to address the issues in order to continue to receive federal funding, Conner said. “They can lose all of their federal funding for not complying with requirements,” she said. The district’s proposed federal fiscal year 2018-19 budget is $19.87 million.