Modesto City Schools will hire a nationally recognized expert on race and discipline to address claims that school district practices have placed a disproportionate number of African-American, Latino and English-learner students in alternative programs, which have fewer educational opportunities.
The school district reached the settlement with a coalition of students, parents and advocacy groups that threatened a federal lawsuit in December over the district's discipline policies and what they charge is a high rate of suspensions and expulsions among minority students.
At a news conference Monday at California Rural Legal Assistance in Modesto, the advocates said African-Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than white students in Modesto City Schools. Latinos are three times and English learners two times more likely to be suspended than other students in the district, they said.
The coalition challenging the district included the Modesto-Stanislaus Chapter of the NAACP, the Advocates for Justice mentor program and 10 individuals who said they were affected by the district's practices.
The district will hire Jason Okonofua, a social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, to analyze school district policies and talk to staff members and students before making recommendations for creating a more inclusive environment at the Modesto schools.
"We look forward to working with Dr. Okonofua and district staff under the terms of the settlement agreement to bring meaningful change in Modesto City Schools," said Jessica Jewell, directing attorney for CRLA.
More than 60 percent of students in Modesto City Schools are Latino, 3 percent are African-American and 25 percent are learning English. Attorneys for the claimants said they learned of cases in which minority students were unfairly disciplined and expected to earn a diploma in alternative programs.
Debbie Barrera, a parent advocate, said the discipline practices are a pipeline to prison for many students who lose hope of graduating.
In an announcement Monday, the school district said it settled with the groups to avoid costly litigation. The district maintained its discipline practices have not violated the civil rights of minority students. Consistent with other public school districts in the nation, the Modesto district said it has been reframing its discipline practices and has reduced the rate of suspensions and expulsions of minority students.
Based on a multiyear lawsuit in another school district in the state, the Modesto district believed it was facing $1.7 million in costs if the case went to court. Last year, the Kern High School District in Bakersfield reportedly agreed to pay $670,000 to settle a lawsuit that claimed Latino and African-American students were expelled and suspended at much higher rates than other students.
Okonofua will study the policies in Modesto City Schools, recommend training for staff and conduct surveys with administration, teachers and students. District officials will hold twice-a-year forums to talk with the community about what the expert has found and discuss recommendations and whether policy changes are working.
Jacq Wilson of Advocates for Justice said the group has looked at data back to 2006 and gave the district seven years to make changes before civil rights lawyers put a case together. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP worked on details of the suit, which were presented to school district representatives in December.
Benjamin Wagner of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who was the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California under former President Obama, said at Monday's news conference the data supported a compelling case against the Modesto district.
"I am pleased that Modesto City Schools, rather than deny the problem, has decided to be part of the change, part of the solution and work with us going forward," Wagner said. If the district fails to make meaningful changes, he said, the attorneys will return to pursue litigation.
Becky Fortuna, spokeswoman for Modesto City Schools, said the district “has retained an expert to review our policies and practices and we eagerly await additional recommendations.”
Fortuna said the district is funded by taxpayers and “it’s important that we protect our limited resources and direct our dollars to areas that improve student learning rather than costly litigation.” The settlement does not reflect a belief that the district violated any laws “but rather is an effort to be fiscally responsible.”
The settlement agreement runs through June 2021. The costs of the policy review and training are not to exceed $300,000. Modesto City Schools will pay $50,000 to the claimants, plus $120,000 in attorney fees.
Cynthia Rice, director of litigation for CRLA, said there has been a statewide effort to reform disciplinary policies in school districts. One section of the Modesto agreement talks about intervention centers at high schools, where students removed from classrooms can be sent without recording the disciplinary action as a suspension, Rice said.
Critics say students referred to intervention centers lose classroom instruction time. Rice said school districts have used the centers to artificially lower suspension rates.
Starting this month, Modesto City Schools is required under the agreement to provide information, including ethnicity and gender, of each student referred to an intervention center. A credentialed staff member must work at each center, as well as a student-assistance specialist to provide social and emotional support to the students. Those students referred to an intervention center must have access to class assignments.