The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI states, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Gail Fry | Contributor
After receiving complaints from school employees and students, on August 12, 2014, the US Department of Education (ED) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) announced it had opened a compliance review of the Victor Valley Union High School District to examine whether its disciplinary practices discriminated against minority students by disciplining them more frequently and harshly in violation of federal law.
As previously reported by the IE Voice and Black Voice News, upon completion of its investigation, the US ED OCR confirmed reports of unequal treatment of African-American students. Its investigation revealed that discipline within the Victor Valley Union High School District (VVUHSD) resulted in greater harm to African-American students, who lost significant learning time compared to White students.
Any government agency receiving federal financial assistance, such as VVUHSD, is subject to The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says no person in this country will be excluded from participating in, or benefiting from, any program or activity on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
Therefore, when OCR determined that VVUHSD through its disciplinary actions deprived African-American students of their ability to get an education, OCR concluded that the district violated federal law.
Statistics for VVUSD’s 2018-19 school year (SY) indicate that 18,000 students were referred for discipline. Of the 18,000, 54.3 percent (9,774) were Latino, 37.1 percent (6,678) were African-American, while 5.9 percent (1,062) were White students.
The percentages of total student enrollment by race, in proportion to the percentages of discipline referrals show the inequality.
Latino students at 54.3 percent (9,774) of discipline referrals, represented 65.2 percent (8,975) of total student enrollment. OCR concluded that discrimination directed at Latinos was not significant.
African-American students at 37.1 percent (6,678) of discipline referrals represent almost twice their 20.8 percent (2,870) of student enrollment.
White students at 5.9 percent (1,062) of discipline referrals, represented eight percent (1,097) of student enrollment.
Asian, Native Islander, and American Indian students at 2.7 percent (486) discipline referrals, represented 5.1 percent (698) of student enrollment.
On August 16, US ED announced it had reached a voluntary settlement with VVUHSD, recognizing principles to establish a safe and nondiscriminatory school environment and to implement provisions of a resolution agreement.
VVUHSD signed a resolution agreement with the US Department of Education, promising to enact 13 action items to examine,correct, and improve their failed disciplinary policies, monitor discrimination, train their staff of legal practices, inform students, parents, and the public of data and progress, and provide education to restore students victimized by discriminatory policies/practices.
Subsequent to the agreement and as previously reported by Black Voice News and IE Voice, VVUHSD announced the hiring of a new superintendent, Carl J. Coles, to replace retiring superintendent Ron Williams, who served the district for 10 years. During Williams’ tenure, OCR found evidence of discrimination against African-American students through the district’s disciplinary actions.
In 2019, Williams was recognized by the California Association of African-American Superintendents as Superintendent of the Year for his exceptional talents and commitment to VVUHSD. Then, Williams was one of 25 African-American superintendents in the state of California.
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s CleanSWEEP Program
OCR confirmed that VVUHSD used a juvenile citation program operated by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and known as CleanSWEEP (Success with Education/ Enforcement Partnership), for its disciplinary cases.
A program once hailed as a successful school safety program by the federal government, the program became a tool to discriminate against mostly Black students within VVUHSD.
CleanSWEEP empowered school administrators to issue citations to students violating the law on campus, the only juvenile citation program in the country, according to the US Department of Justice.
Under the CleanSWEEP program, school administrators could issue citations to students of ages 10 through 17, if found loitering, littering, keeping lost property, committing petty theft, applying graffiti, having tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana.
OCR determined that African-American students were 3.4 times more likely to receive a citation then White students.
Students cited with infractions were then compelled to appear in court before a judge who could impose a variety of punishments.
OCR determined that VVUHSD, utilizing the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s CleanSWEEP Program and other disciplinary actions, disciplined minority students more harshly and frequently in violation of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI.
On August 31, San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus issued a press release announcing the suspension of its CleanSWEEP Program, citing an open investigation by the California State Attorney General.
OCR Found CleanSWEEP Program Discriminated
At VVUHSD, according to OCR, CleanSWEEP was deployed at four schools: Adelanto, Hook, Silverado, and Victor Valley. Other schools in the district mostly attended by White students – Cobalt Institute of Math and Science and University Preparatory – did not have CleanSWEEP on campus.
VVUHSD employees with direct knowledge of its disciplinary data and the CleanSWEEP program testified that actions taken under CleanSWEEP discriminated against African-American students in SY 2018-19.
OCR discovered district leadership detailed concerns in a memo and recommended discontinuing the program, citing CleanSWEEP’s negative impact on students and their families already facing debilitating levels of poverty.
VVUHSD’s mischaracterization of student behavior
OCR determined that two district schools mischaracterized defiant or disruptive behavior of African-American students to justify harsher punishment, as intentionally engaging in harassment, threats, or intimidation, directed against school district personnel or pupils. OCR did not identify a similar pattern occurring to White students.
OCR concluded that out of all African-American students facing a first-time referral, 14.6 percent of African-American students received a severe consequence, compared to 9.4 percent of White students. African-American students accounted for 42.9 percent of all first-time referrals, double their (20.8 percent) of student enrollment.
OCR found African-American students received harsher treatment, removed from instruction, for having engaged in inappropriate behavior, defiance or disruption, contrasting with numerous examples of White students not removed for similar behavior.
African-American students (27.1 percent) were almost twice as likely as White students (15.1 percent) to receive a suspension or behavior contract after a second referral for inappropriate behavior OCR determined.
Examples of disparate treatment
An administrator told OCR that in one instance, a teacher referred an African-American student for sexual harassment, instead of a dress code violation, for wearing saggy pants with no belt. Sexual harassment, a more serious offense, can result in suspension.
OCR found circumstances where an African-American student was suspended one day for wearing his pants low, while a White student received five days lunch detention for the same and more.
In other instances, California law says truant, or tardy students should be disciplined through alternative methods other than suspension/expulsion, VVUSD’s Disciplinary Policy authorized suspensions.
OCR determined that VVUHSD used suspensions/on-campus interventions at least 692 times during SY 2018-19 to discipline students who were tardy or missed instruction.
Overall, African-American students were 2.5 times more likely to be suspended, and 2.3 times more likely than White students to be suspended more than once.
For incidents involving fighting during SY 2018-19, average suspensions for African-American students equaled 2.6 days, compared to White students averaging 2.3 days.
An administrator revealed students were pressured to sign pre-expulsion contracts during disciplinary proceedings, which could mean expulsion for future misbehavior.
OCR determined that African-American students received pre-expulsion contracts at a rate of 3.7 times greater than White students.
OCR discovered Adelanto High School placed some students on “home custody,” during SY 2018-19, of those 13 students, five (39%) were African-American, and 8 (62%) were Latino.
Home Custody and pre-expulsion contracts were not in VVUHSD’s Disciplinary Policy. Home Custody was considered a suspension while pre-expulsion contracts could result in expulsion for future behavior.
Of the 73 students expelled during SY 2018-19, 53.4 percent (39) were African-American students, representing less than a quarter, 20.8 percent, of district enrollment.
The district’s data revealed that African-American students accounted for 42.9% of all referrals resulting in exclusionary discipline or other severe consequences.
Use of force and pepper-spray
An administrator alleged security officers used force and pepper spray on African-American students more than other students.
The administrator recalled the school’s principal acknowledging district security officers used pepper spray too freely. OCR found VVUHSD did not track use of pepper spray.
Disenroll Students to Improve Graduation Rates
OCR discovered VVUHSD counseled African-American and Latino students facing discipline, attendance, and/or academic problems to leave school, and enroll in alternative programs, to improve VVUHSD’s graduation rates.
Another administrator confirmed VVUHSD labeled students, 18 years and older with disciplinary issues, as unlocatable truants, disenrolling them. OCR corroborated the allegations.
VVUHSD was aware its disciplinary practices were harmful
During its investigation, OCR interviewed 17 VVUHSD school administrators and about 30 school employees, asking them about their knowledge of its discipline policies, practices, and data in addition to reviewing district records.
OCR determined the facts, applied the legal standards under The Civil Rights Act of 1964, it found VVUHSD involved itself in discriminatory treatment of African-American students in its application of discipline, in violation of Title VI and its use of federal and state regulations.
OCR also determined that the school district was aware of the disproportionate/harmful impact of its disciplinary practices on African-American students over multiple years, and these harms were foreseeable.
Racialized generalizations and negative stereotypes
In conducting their interviews, OCR explored why VVUHSD’s discipline rates were higher for African-American students and concluded district administration and employees’ justifications reflected racialized generalizations and negative stereotypes about African-American student behavior.
For example, one principal justified disproportionate discipline for African-American students because they are “loud” and it is their “culture.” Another administrator observed school administrators were less patient with African-American students when imposing discipline.