Modesto City Schools said Friday it is cooperating with a U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigation of its handling of a race-based bullying incident and the district’s long history of higher discipline rates for black students.
The announcement of the civil rights case comes as advocates press the district for more role models and services for African American students. At the Modesto City Schools board meeting Monday, the community group Advocates for Justice will lay out a program proposal for mentoring students and raising parent involvement among African American families.
The Office of Civil Rights investigation notification was sent out April 4 to an African American grandmother who filed a complaint with the office against the district.
Her granddaughter was attacked at a school bus stop by a white student throwing rocks and calling out racial slurs, Rita Tillery told the board earlier this year. The incident escalated and the junior high suspended both students. But the bullying was so severe the family moved her granddaughter, who is African American, to a different school, Tillery said.
The notification letter says it will investigate her complaint of an inappropriate response to an incident of racial harassment, then adds, “We will be opening an additional allegation that the district disciplines African American students more frequently and harshly than it does white students for the same or similar conduct.”
Do we have a true concern of inequality? Absolutely. Modesto City Schools has taken this very, very seriously.
Ginger Johnson, Modesto City Schools associate superintendent
Reached Friday, Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson said the district has been notified of the case and is cooperating with investigators.
“Do we have a true concern of inequality? Absolutely,” she said, stressing progress the district has made in recent years. “Modesto City Schools has taken this very, very seriously.”
The district has reduced its expulsions from nearly 300 students in 2010 to 17 in 2014, and suspensions have also dropped dramatically. The greatest reductions have been in the past few years as it has implemented a tiered system of prevention and practical steps to solve root problems when rules are broken.
Modesto City Schools started PeaceBuilders at all its elementary schools, a program teaching empathy and laying out clear expectations for good behavior. It has restorative justice programs at 14 of its sites, including the continuation high school.
Johnson said the district has spent about $1 million on mental health supports and counseling for students. In February, administrators received training in cultural sensitivity and plans are in the works for training teachers next year.
“We are still addressing this. It’s such a change in culture, and culture is the hardest thing to change. But we are working diligently, I can tell you that,” Johnson said.
$4,667,654 What Advocates for Justice calculates was the extra funding Modesto City Schools received this year to serve its low-income African American students
The civil rights investigation will be discussed at a news conference Monday and will be included in remarks before the board meeting, said Jacq Wilson, co-founder of Advocates for Justice.
Advocates for Justice worked with Modesto City Schools under a $38,900 contract in 2013-14, mentoring students and taking them on field trips. It has worked for two years on an informal, volunteer basis since then.
The proposal Wilson will lay out Monday for the board is far more extensive, envisioning a paid program coordinator and office assistant, two student mentor coordinators, a parent-support specialist and a licensed clinical social worker.
The program plans field trips, student events and workshops for at-risk kids and their parents, supporting Black Student Union Clubs at high schools and junior highs, community service activities and parent involvement.
No estimate of cost was included in the proposal, but Wilson acknowledged it would be several times higher than the earlier program.
The Modesto City Schools Board of Education will meet at 6 p.m. Monday in the district staff development center, 425 Locust St., Modesto. Find the agenda or watch a live stream of the meeting at www.mcs4kids.com.