The mother of a Beyer High teen who took her own life in 2015 has filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against Modesto City Schools, demanding they change disciplinary practices that disproportionally affect black students.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Fresno, accuses the school district of violating the 14th Amendment and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The brief by attorney Tim A. Pori of San Francisco says the district’s longstanding practices and disciplinary procedures have “inevitably forged a culture of de facto segregation of African American students.”
Doneisha Neal was 15 when she died, an honor roll student who dreamed of going to college, and defensive end on the Beyer High football team – the only girl, said her mother, Latisha Cyprian. “I was so proud of my daughter,” Cyprian said in an emotional recounting Wednesday of the last weeks of her daughter’s life.
Neal had never been in trouble before an altercation with a white classmate in January 2015 that resulted in her suspension, her mother said. After the suspension she was forced to transfer to another school, but on Feb. 5 was suspended again and told she was being sent to a continuation program.
“That’s what devastated her, because she just broke down at that time,” Cyprian said, adding she and her daughter were confused about what was happening and frustrated by an inability to reach school and district officials for an explanation.
I want them to stop treating kids the way they did.
“I want them to stop treating kids the way they did,” she said. “Why are they trying to send kids to an alternative school, like, what’s the point in that? If they can’t succeed in school why would you send them to an alternative school? Obviously it seems there’s deeper issues that need to be worked out.”
Pori said the suit was based in part on disparities in school discipline of African American students, for which Modesto City Schools has also faced Office of Civil Rights complaints and state sanctions. But he focused on the de facto segregation imposed by involuntary transfers to alternative education sites.
Elliott High, the district’s continuation high school, has far higher numbers of black students than its other schools. In 2015-16, just under 10 percent of Elliott’s students were African American, more than twice the proportion at at any other Modesto high school. The district’s high school students overall are 3.7 percent African American.
Neal had been told she was being sent to a single-classroom program at another high school, not Elliott, but the effect is the same, Pori said later. “They’re playing musical chairs with the discipline system,” he said, changing the statistics but not changing the result.
The lawsuit was necessary, Pori said: “It’s the only way you’re going to effect change.”
The school district declined to comment on the lawsuit, but issued this statement: “Losing a child is devastating, and our hearts go out to the student’s loved ones. We cannot comment on a specific student’s history or potential litigation, however, we can say that we have a tiered system of supports in place to help our students with mental health and discipline concerns. We also follow our conduct code which outlines behavior expectations and progressive consequences.”