ACLU of Northern California Files Complaint Against Loleta USD on Behalf of Tribe for Discrimination of Indigenous Students

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LOLETA, CALIFORNIA - Today, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights on behalf of the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria regarding repeated acts of discrimination against Native American students and students with disabilities in Loleta Union School District.

The complaint reveals troubling patterns of racial hostility and cites multiple occasions over the last year that Loleta Elementary staff has used racial slurs and racially coded language in their interactions with Indigenous students. Parents of Indigenous students who have come forward to raise these issues with school administrators have been met with deliberate indifference and, in some cases, active retaliation from school staff. The failure to respond to complaints of discrimination and harassment is in opposition to the district’s own required policies and procedures.

The complaint also details repeated failures on behalf of school staff to make reasonable modifications to avoid discriminating against students with disabilities. Rather than modifying disciplinary policies and practices as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Loleta Elementary staff routinely punish disabled students for behaviors arising from their disabilities. Students who exhibit behaviors that are manifestations of their disabilities are often removed from classrooms and denied critical learning time.

Indigenous students with and without disabilities face disproportionately higher rates of exclusionary discipline, chronic absenteeism, and lower academic outcomes than their non-Indigenous peers. These disparities are particularly egregious in Humboldt County. A 2020 report authored by the ACLU titled, Failing Grade: The Status of Native American Education in Humboldt County found that Indigenous students in Humboldt County, including in Loleta USD, face vast disparities in academic outcomes. These negative outcomes are a direct result of systemic failures that cause Indigenous students to feel disengaged and unwelcome at school, such as bullying and racially hostile school environments; disparate use of disciplinary practices such as suspension, expulsion, and referrals to law enforcement; and failure to provide school-based student supports, including culturally relevant school-based mental health professionals.

“Explicit and implicit racism affects students’ vision of themselves and their futures. Being subjected to racist remarks and stereotypes at school negatively impacts educational outcomes for our native youth, said Darrell Sherman, Council Member of the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria. “We need to tell kids they are doing a good job; tell them they are going to succeed—and treat them accordingly. We all have a role in building up and protecting the youth in our community.”

Previously, the Humboldt County Office of Education provided a part-time School Psychologist and School Climate Director at Loleta Elementary to help to address discrimination experienced by Indigenous families and to create a more inclusive school culture. Unfortunately, the District failed to fill that position when it became vacant earlier this year. The absence of an effective School Climate Director has exacerbated much of the discrimination and harassment experienced by Indigenous students and their families.

“With the departure of the previous Superintendent and previous School Climate Director, the situation at Loleta Elementary has rapidly spiraled out of control, and the district is failing to take reasonable action to remedy or stop ongoing serious legal violations,” said Linnea Nelson, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California.” Indigenous students and students with disabilities are suffering at Loleta Elementary School because of employees’ discrimination against them. Robust corrective action is urgently needed.”

“The Bear River Band is committed to challenging historic inequities on behalf of its members and all Indigenous students,” said Josefina Frank, Chairwoman of the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria. “Remedying unlawful discrimination is essential to provide Indigenous students at Loleta with equal educational opportunities so they can further their education and achieve professional success.”

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