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October 22, 2018
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Discrimination and bullying in our schools

September 21, 2018

Since Feb. 2016 the Commission on Human Rights has been looking into issues of racial discrimination and harassment in schools, following requests for advocacy and support from parents, students and educators residing in all five districts.

The recommendations are intended for school districts as they develop Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) budget proposals to include proactive measures for diversity competence and improvement of school climate and consider policy changes to address issues that affect the academic performance, mental and physical health of students within Sonoma County.

Specific issues that have been reported to the Commission on human rights such as complaints reported to administrators about racial or other discriminatory harassment often resulted in inadequate discipline of the perpetrators and inadequate support for the victims.

Discrimination policies and the complaint process itself were reported as not easily found on school or district websites, difficult to navigate and the 60 days’ investigation period in the face of obvious harassment such as verbal slurs and threats of physical violence left victimized students unprotected.

Parents and students reported an inadequate investigation process in which schools and districts self-investigated with results that did not properly address the discrimination and harassment and some were required to change schools.

Parents expressed frustration at the inability to receive support from SCOE, one of whose key programs is defined as offering “service and support to help districts meet legal mandates.” However, as also stated, “SCOE does not have or create policies directing district behavior. Each district sets its own policies.” Parents seeking oversight out of the district complaint process are then referred back to the districts they felt weren’t adequately addressing their complaints.

Educators and parents reported moderate to severe reductions in student academic performance and overall trajectory, echoing findings by the U.S. department of Health and Human Services that students who are bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and   eating patterns and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, issues which may persist into adulthood. They also experience health complaints and decreased academic achievement-GPA and standardized test scores-and school participation. They are more likely to miss, skip or drop out of school, all of which interferes with equal opportunity to education and FAPE accessibility for students with disabilities. In addition, when bullying based on race or ethnicity is severe, pervasive, or persistent it may be considered harassment, which is covered under federal civil rights laws.

Although title IX and Title IV do not prohibit discrimination based solely on sexual orientation, they protect all students, including students who are LGBTQI or perceived to be LGBTQI from sex-based harassment. Harassment based on sex and sexual orientation are not mutually exclusive. When students are harassed based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation, they may also be subjected to forms of sex discrimination recognized under Title IX. Federal protection laws include:

• Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

• Title IX of the Education amendments of 1972

• Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

• Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

• Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Students from two high schools’ newspapers in Petaluma and Sebastopol published articles on the rise of hate speech in their schools, a lack of adequate response from administrators and observations of “white supremacy masquerading as nationalism.” the report showed that racial harassment in schools is clearly on the rise and states that “other students have been emboldened by the divisive, often juvenile rhetoric in the campaign. Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.”

Parents felt that filing OCR complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights were their only option for assistance without support from their schools and district administrators. While this is their right, the process is complex, feedback also points to the existence of more incidents and systemic problems of discrimination that are reflected in the complaint data. 

Within the past 18 months, there have been cases within the county of at least one suicide attributed to discriminatory bullying, anecdotal reports of attempted and actual assaults based on race and sexual orientation, an increase in verbal and online threats and the use of racist slogans and confederate and American flags on student vehicles and within school athletics programs to intimidate students of color, LGBTQI students and students with disabilities.

When it last was updated in Feb. 2017, top county recipients of OCR complaints were Santa Rosa City Schools, 16, West Sonoma County Union High District, 10, Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District, 6, Petaluma Joint Union High School District, 4, and Santa Rosa High School, 4. 

Of the number of OCR complaints, five were related to racial harassment, with one open assault case at Santa Rosa High School at the time of the report’s submission.

Some districts appear to take proactive steps and no longer received OCR complaints while others continued to have OCR complaints filed during the entire time span, which suggests a need for review and adjustment of disciplinary policies and protocol. 

For more information, contact The Commission on Human Rights at socochr@sonomacounty.org.

Submitted by the Commission on Human Right County of Son