Safeguarding Equal Educational Opportunity in Modesto
In 2001, an African-American student at Grace Davis High School in Modesto was involved in a fight with another student over race–the other student called him a "nigger." While the black student was suspended for more than a month and then transferred to another school, the white student was suspended only briefly.
The African-American student's family filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, alleging that the Modesto school district disproportionately disciplined African-American students.
Black Students More Than Twice as Likely To Be Expelled
The complaint led to a Time Magazine story, "Learning While Black," which reported that African-American students in Modesto were 2.5 times more likely to be expelled than their white peers.
That statistic squares with studies that show that African-American students are suspended and expelled from schools in racially disproportionate numbers nationwide. Students who are suspended – often for offenses as minor as chewing gum – or expelled are more likely to drop out, and, in turn, more likely to enter the criminal justice system.
As racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions in Modesto schools persisted, two parents contacted the ACLU of Northern California for help.
ACLU of Northern California Report Leads To Reforms
Our investigation found presumably unintended but persistent incidents of discriminatory discipline in Modesto schools. For example, state data showed that low-income students and students of color were disproportionately transferred to the district's alternative school, the Elliot Alternative Education Center.
"Once sent to Elliot, these students are dropping out at shockingly high rates," our investigation noted, "rendering those 'transfers' essentially the equivalent of expulsions."
In 2007, the ACLU of Northern California issued a report outlining concerns and making recommendations to address the unequal treatment of students in Modesto schools.
The school board adopted several of our recommendations, including reforming the school's conduct code, under which large numbers of students, particularly students of color, had been suspended for "excessive tardies."
The reforms also included granting an automatic right of return to students who were involuntarily transferred.
We continue to monitor the progress of the reforms and are pushing for additional improvements.