The Kern High School District may be on track to expel and suspend fewer students this school year, but rising racial tensions still pose a challenge for the district.

More than 100 residents attended a community forum Tuesday in the KHSD board room, during which staff presented residents with information on how the district is approaching student behavior. Data reports regarding suspensions and expulsions, transfers, school climate survey results and more from the fall 2017 semester were provided.

The district is required to hold two such forums each school year as part of a settlement for a major lawsuit against the district. The lawsuit, which consisted of about 20 plaintiffs, alleged that the district expelled and suspended African American and Latino students at a disproportionate rate compared to other students.

“The Kern High School District…[is] focused on the social, emotional and academic success of all our students,” said Brenda Davis, associate superintendent of instruction. “Over the past few years, we’ve been very strategic in the planning and implementation of support structures and services across the district to ensure that success.”

According to the new data, the district cut the number of expulsions by more than half last semester with seven expulsions compared to 15 in the fall 2016 semester.

Black and Latino students made up six of the expulsions, a more disproportionate rate compared to 2016. In fall 2016, six white and six Latino students were expelled. Black students stayed the same with three expulsions for both semesters.

Suspension rates for the 2017-18 school year are on track to be around the same as last year if the district suspends about the same number of students in the spring.

For the fall, 4.9 percent of students were suspended. In the 2015-16 year, a total of 9.6 percent of students were suspended, according to the district. When broken down by race and ethnicity, black students were suspended the most at 11.2 percent for the semester.

“We understand that removal is necessary in a lot of situations, but when we can and it’s appropriate, we try to couple that with intervention and support,” said Brian Mendiburu, director of student behavior and supports for the district.

During the forum, staff also went over the results of a school climate survey that was taken last semester. While the majority of responses didn’t show much change from when the questions were asked the previous school year, there were a few standouts.

The percentage of African American students who felt isolated and/or harassed at school due to their race or ethnicity in the 60 days prior to taking the survey jumped from 16 percent in 2016-17 to 19 percent in 2017-18.

When asked if they’ve felt isolated or harassed for any reason within 60 days, more students said "yes." Twenty percent of black students agreed last semester compared to 17 percent the previous year. The men, women and Latino categories also saw small increases.

The only category that didn’t increase was white students, which dropped from 17 percent saying they felt isolated and/or harassed to 16 percent.

When asked if there was a lot of racial tension at school, up to 30 percent of students agreed that there was last semester.

There were a few areas of progress for minority students, however. The district saw a decrease from 13 percent in 2016 to 11 percent in 2017 in black students who said they had been disrespected or mistreated by an adult at their school due to their race or ethnicity. Latinos stayed the same at 4 percent.

Fewer African American students said they were verbally harassed due to their sexual orientation, dropping from 10 percent to 7 percent. Latino students stayed steady at 3 percent.

Fewer students experienced social media harassment at school due to sexual orientation last semester across the board. African American students saw the biggest decrease from 9 percent in 2016 to 6 percent in 2017. White students saw the second-largest change from 4 percent to 2 percent.

Mendiburu said there are things to celebrate in the data from last semester, but there’s a lot to improve on, as well.

“There will be times that we will agree to disagree with the community at large in the ways that we’re wrestling with how to support students on campus, but the reality is that as an organization, you have an expectation of us as taxpayers. We have an obligation to examine all of our practices when we think of student support,” he said.

The forum was the second to be held after the district settled the lawsuit in July. The district agreed to cover $600,000 in attorney fees and pay the plaintiffs a total of $70,000. As part of the settlement, the district agreed to hold the forums and hire consultants to train staff on student discipline, as well as a few additional requests.

Through the lawsuit process, KHSD reported more than 2,200 expulsions in 2009, the highest of any district in the state. The expulsion rate of about 55 per 1,000 students was higher than the national average, which was around 1.5 per 1,000 students, according to the lawsuit.

Latino students were expelled at a rate 350 percent higher than white students. For African American students, it was 600 percent.

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 395-7368 or by email at jluiz@bakersfield.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @JLuiz_TBC. 

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