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KHSD to pay $670,000, train staff, to settle suit alleging minorities targeted for suspension and expulsion

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The Kern High School District acknowledged it had disproportionately expelled and suspended black and Latino students and agreed to pay $670,000 and strengthen training programs related to disciplinary practices in a settlement agreement finalized Monday.

The settlement of Sanders v. Kern High School District ends a 3-year-old lawsuit involving 20 plaintiffs, including the Dolores Huerta Foundation and about 14 parents who alleged minority students were being expelled at higher rates than anywhere else in the state.

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

Meanwhile, Latino students were expelled at a rate 350 percent higher than white students. Black students were expelled at rates almost 600 percent higher than white students, the suit stated.

It has since dropped those rates, expelling fewer than 70 students in 2015, the latest year for which the California Department of Education has data. The high school district could not immediately provide updated data to The Californian Monday afternoon.

Despite acknowledging its own trend of disproportionate expulsion rates, KHSD said in a statement that it’s a nationwide trend, that it never violated any civil rights laws and would have “prevailed if this case continued.”

“Certainly, KHSD has not engaged in intentional systemic racist student discipline practices against African-American and Latino students,” the district said in a statement.

The agreement establishes, among other things, the following:

  • Attorney’s fees will be covered by about $600,000, and $70,000 will be split into $5,000 payments to plaintiffs for educational remediation.
  • KHSD must hire Jeffrey Sprague and Rachel Godsil, two Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports experts, to help the district train staff in PBIS. The two cost roughly $40,000 over three years.
  • Every staff member must be trained in PBIS over a years-long period.
  • KHSD must hold community forums regarding student behavior and school climate twice a year. Administrators must present data related to suspensions, involuntary and voluntary transfers, expulsions, discipline and referral data disaggregated by race, ethnicity and gender during those meetings.
  • Students cannot be expelled or involuntarily transferred for defiance.
  • The district must recognize Black History Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month and allow students to celebrate those events.

The agreement also establishes that the district must create guidelines for discipline so that all students are treated equally, said Sahar Durali, directing attorney of the California Rural Legal Assistance in Delano, which represented plaintiffs in the Sanders case.

She cautioned, however, that the terms of the agreement can only be enforced by a vigilant community.

“This is not over. We have to be at the community forums, we have to keep them accountable and make sure those things are being implemented the way they are supposed to be. The settlement is as strong as the community and the advocates who are going to enforce it,” Durali said.

“We think this is a really amazing step forward compared to what this district looked like a few years ago. We’re excited students aren’t going to get pushed out for trumped-up reasons and have a fair chance in a more supportive environment.”

KHSD Trustee Bryan Batey said he was glad the lawsuit was over, but that it should have never been filed. He said many of the remediations included in the settlement, including PBIS training, were already initiated.

“I’m disappointed they chose to use the court system to address something we had already been working on,” Batey said. “We weren’t given a chance to work through the issues.”

Attorneys fees cost the district more than $787,000, and the settlement agreement will not be covered by the district’s insurance company, according to information the district published on its website in anticipation of the settlement.

Continuing to try the case in court would not have been in the district’s best financial interest, the district stated.

“Every dollar spent fighting this lawsuit was taxpayer money that KHSD received as part of its federal and state-budgeted funds, which are meant to be spent on education,” the district stated on its website.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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