Four teenagers in two northern California towns say school administrators' racist and sexist behavior makes an intentionally hostile environment for black and native American students, according to a lawsuit filed on their behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Eureka City Schools and Loleta Union School District, alleging pervasive and systemic racism and sexism, and naming as defendants school board members and a host of administrators.
The civil liberties group is asking the federal department of education to investigate the Loleta school district, alleging Superintendent and Principal Sally Hadden made racially insensitive statements to students, physically hit students and failed in her duties as a mandated reporter.
The lawsuit and complaint include dozens of specific allegations, such as administrators turning a deaf ear to complaints of racial taunting and bullying, that minority students are disproportionately disciplined, that the districts fail to comply with federal protections for students with disabilities and that numerous employees of the districts made racially and sexually insensitive comments.
The lawsuit is seeking monetary damages for the plaintiffs and administrative remedies, including a monitoring program.
Michael Harris, a senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law which is partnering with the ACLU in the suit, spent months investigating both districts, said the situation amounts to a “culture of lawlessness” that almost encourages bullying.
”This culture has bred this belief among some students that they can target other students and nothing will happen to them, and they are pretty much right,” Harris said.
Eureka City Schools issued a statement Wednesday afternoon stating that, at this time, the district is not aware of evidence to support the lawsuit's allegations.
“We do not tolerate harassment or discrimination, and we believe every student is entitled to a to a safe school environment free from discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying,” the statement reads. “As a district, we take the allegations seriously and we are actively investigating the charges to determine the facts.”
Hadden had not responded to two phone messages and an email seeking comment for this story as of deadline Wednesday.
The four plaintiffs are referred to by pseudonyms in the lawsuit against Eureka City Schools, but include 15- and 13-year-old black female students, a 14-year-old black male student and a 16-year-old Native American student. Collectively, the plaintiffs attended Alice Birney Elementary, Zane Middle School, Winship Middle School, Eureka High School and the Eureka Community School Educational Resource Center.
“Plaintiffs have experienced years of intentional discrimination by district staff based on their race, sex and disability status,” the suit states. “Defendants have and continue to intentionally discriminate against plaintiffs by perpetuating a racially and sexually hostile environment in district schools, and by failing to provide students with disabilities equal and meaningful access to education.”
The lawsuit makes many incendiary allegations, including that the black plaintiffs have had racial slurs directed at them from scores of classmates.
One such allegation says that a black student was harassed by another student for years. Allegations say the black student was called was called “n—“ by the student, monkey noises were made at him, he was spit on, had food thrown at him and was physically assaulted.
Another student alleges she and her mother told administrators about racial bullying about 30 times, but little if anything was done by school and district administrators.
The lawsuit alleges the racism is systemic, and includes anecdotes about inappropriate comments from teachers, administrators and staff. One student alleges that one of her white teachers proclaimed in front of her class that “black people get bored easily”, and that a school monitor once told her, “Don't give me your black attitude.”
The lawsuit also alleges Eureka City Schools' curriculum is insensitive, pointing toward teachers' practice of using films or books containing racial slurs without discussing “the offensiveness and the historical context of the terms.”
The Native American plaintiff alleges that the educational environment has also been hostile to Native Americans, and their cultures and traditions. The student points to an instance at Eureka High School in the spring of 2013, when a history teacher asked students to raise their hands if they were Native Americans and then called upon a Yurok tribal member to explain to the class the Indian Island Massacre carried out on the Wiyot Tribe. Another teacher, according to the suit, asked students to make up different Native American tribes and then had them pretend to fight each other to “teach her students that this was how Native Americans traditionally resolved conflict between their communities.”
In the suit, the Native American plaintiff also alleges that the district repeatedly refused to excuse her absences to attend tribal cultural activities.
The lawsuit also alleges the district has suspended and disciplined minority students at disproportionate rates, and includes anecdotes about minority students being suspended for lashing out in the face of racial bullying while their tormentors went unpunished by the district. The district failed to adequately diagnose students with learning disabilities, the suit alleges, and consequently has not given them services to which they are entitled.
Sexism is also a problem in the district, the suit alleges, claiming district staff has witnessed, implicitly condoned and even participated in the “weekly traditions” of “titty-twisting Tuesdays” and “slap-ass Fridays,” during which female students have their nipples, breasts and buttocks grabbed, hit and groped on school grounds. The suit also contains allegations of teachers and staff making inappropriate comments to female students.
The complaint the two groups filed in conjunction with California Indian Legal Services against the Loleta school district also alleges school staff has acted inappropriately and created a culture of hostility.
In the complaint, the groups allege that school officials have made a host of remarks denigrating Native Americans, including Hadden's allegedly grabbing a Native American student by the ear and saying, “See how red it gets?”; a staff member openly referring to Native American students as “goats” and “sheep” in a school board meeting; a district secretary saying the “kids are acting like a bunch of wild Indians”; and Hadden's allegedly referring to a Native American student as “saltine” because he “looked white.”
The complaint also alleges that Hadden has hit students over the head with a clipboard hard enough to make a loud “crack” sound, and that she has kicked students in the buttocks.
Hadden, the complaint alleges, also has engaged in a pattern of discriminatory discipline, regularly sending Native American students home from school or expelling them for minor infractions. The superintendent and principal, the complaint alleges, denied students due process, and put up barriers to disability and special needs assessments. According to the complaint, Hadden punished students by sending them to “the hole,” a small, windowless room where they receive neither instruction nor oversight.
County Superintendent of Schools Garry Eagles said that he was shocked to learn of the lawsuit and its allegations, on Wednesday.
“I have been county superintendent for 11 years, and with the county office here for 30, and I've never had a student, a parent or an advocacy group come to me with allegations like this concerning any of our schools,” he said. “So this came as a complete surprise.”
Eagles said neither the ACLU nor the National Center for Youth Law contacted him to discuss the allegations or their intent to file a lawsuit or a formal complaint.
Harris and ACLU managing attorney Jory Steele both said their investigation didn't have time to look at all 32 of Humboldt County's school districts, and instead focused on the two they felt the most egregious allegations were coming from.
”I'd be confident to say these aren't the only two districts in the county with issues,” Steele said.