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Civil rights groups call settlement with Kern High School District 'first step'

The Dolores Huerta Foundation, Faith in Kern and several local civil rights groups will watch the Kern High School District for the next three years to ensure it changes policies that they say unfairly targeted minorities, the civil rights groups said at a press conference Wednesday.

A settlement between KHSD and 20 plaintiffs, which included 14 parents and the Dolores Huerta Foundation, was reached Monday. The lawsuit alleged district discipline policies unfairly targeted African-American and Latino students for suspension or school transfer.

KHSD said it settled the suit for "largely financial" reasons. The district has maintained it did not violate any civil rights laws with its student discipline practices.

Under the agreement, the district will pay plaintiffs' legal fees and have two Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) experts train teachers and non-teaching staff on implicit bias.

"We'll be watching and we'll follow back if they don't follow through," Equal Justice Society President Eva Paterson said at the press conference.

In addition to explaining certain terms of the settlement, like permitting students to celebrate Black History Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month, the six civil rights groups addressed some of the comments KHSD made in a statement Monday.

"The professional development for teachers, staff training, and similar initiatives and practices were things KHSD was already doing, or in the process of doing, before the Plaintiffs filed their lawsuit and/or before the case settled," the district said in the release.

While the district already had two PBIS advisers, the settlement would add two more.

Jeffrey Sprague and Rachel Godsil are "nationally renowned" and would let community-based organizations and parents be a part of the process, said Gerald Cantu, civic engagement director at the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

Rice said her organization and others spent three years with the district working to convince it to change its policies, but KHSD had refused.

"What did the district do? They continued to defend and deny," Rice said.

When the district presented expulsion numbers in 2013, it showed a "remarkable" reduction, Rice said. But they found the district had instead turned to involuntarily transferring students, she said.

"Nothing changed except the number and what they were called," Rice said.

So the parents, Dolores Huerta Foundation, MALDEF and Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, among others, filed suit three years ago as a "last resort," she said.

There has been some criticism about how much the lawyers are getting from the settlement — about $600,000 — while the families will receive a combined $70,000 for education-related expenses.

"The days of slavery and unpaid labor are over," Paterson said, adding the attorneys worked hard for three years.

During a question-and-answer period that followed the conference, a woman asked about the timing of the mandatory community forums as working parents might find it difficult to go.

The settlement does not specifically state a time of day to hold the forums, but it does require they be held twice a year, no later than Jan. 30 for the first semester and no later than Sept. 30 for the second semester.

Forums will be announced to parents via robocalls, Spanish/English flyers posted in each school's front office and through local English and Spanish media outlets.

Per the settlement, the district will present information on discipline actions and transfer rates during the community forums.

Teleconferencing will be available for outlying school sites, like Shafter, Arvin and Kern Valley high schools.

"There is a very strong bias," Dolores Huerta said about the district, "but I think this lawsuit is going to make them change."

Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at (661) 395-7368. Follow her on Twitter via @TBCCityBeat.

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