UPDATE, Nov. 28, 2018: The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed an amended complaint with the Office for Civil Rights. The stories of five more students were added as well as information from current and past district staff. The additional information shows that Visalia Unified is creating a hostile environment for Black students as early as elementary school.
SAN FRANCISCO — The ACLU Foundation of Northern California today filed a discrimination complaint on behalf of Black students in the Visalia Unified School District who have faced ongoing racial hostility.
The complaint, filed with the Office for Civil Rights within the Department of Education, charges the district with violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 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.
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 pervasive racial harassment in the Visalia school district goes completely unchallenged by school officials, leading Black students to question their worth to district administrators,” said Abre’ Conner, a staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “The district has a long history of racial hostility and bigotry. Although there is a discrimination policy in place, it is not enforced to protect Black students.”
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.
In 2006 after news reports of a student called the n-word, the ACLU sent a letter calling on the Visalia Unified School District to address the hostile environment for Black students. 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 engaged in conversations for months about how to start to address the problem. Despite numerous conversations and ample time, the school district has failed to agree to tangible steps to address the 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,” Conner said. “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.”
The Visalia Unified School District is in Tulare County in the agricultural Central Valley of California. The district’s student population is less than 2 percent Black.