Discrimination and Bullying in Our Schools — A Report and Recommendations

Published:  March 8, 2017

  1. Background
    1. Since February 2016 the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has been looking into issues of racial discrimination and harassment in schools, following requests for advocacy and support from parents, students and educators residing in all five districts. The commission reviewed 2010-2015 data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR), county-wide district data on Uniform Complaints related to discrimination and harassment, as well as anecdotal evidence collected from parents, students and educators. The Commission on Human Rights seeks to assist the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) on insuring a safe, non-discriminatory learning environment for protected student groups. The recommendations are intended for school districts as they review their existing discrimination policies and grievance protocol, develop Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) budget proposals to include proactive measures for diversity competence and improvement of school climate, and consider policy changes to address issues that affect the academic performance, mental and physical health of students within Sonoma County.
  2. Specific Issues Reported to the Commission on Human Rights
    1. Complaints reported to administrators about racial or other discriminatory harassment often resulted in inadequate discipline of the perpetrators and inadequate support for the victims.
    2. Discrimination policies and the complaint process itself were reported as not easily found on school/district websites, difficult to navigate, and the 60 day investigation period in the face of obvious harassment such as verbal slurs and threats of physical violence left victimized students unprotected.
    3. Parents and students reported an inadequate investigation process in which schools and districts self-investigated with results that did not properly address the discrimination and harassment and some were required to change schools.
    4. Parents expressed frustration at the inability to receive support from SCOE, one of whose key programs is defined as offering “service and support to help districts meet legal mandates”.  However, as also stated, “SCOE does not have or create policies directing district behavior. Each district sets its own policies."  Parents seeking oversight outside of the District complaint process are then referred back to the districts they felt weren't adequately addressing their complaints.
    5. Educators and parents reported moderate to severe reductions in student academic performance and overall trajectory, echoing findings by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that students who are bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, issues which may persist into adulthood. They also experience health complaints and decreased academic achievement—GPA and standardized test scores—and school participation. They are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school, all of which interferes with equal opportunity to education and FAPE accessibility for students with disabilities. In addition, when bullying based on race or ethnicity is severe, pervasive, or persistent it may be considered harassment, which is covered under federal civil rights laws.
    6. Although Title IX and Title IV do not prohibit discrimination based solely on sexual orientation, they protect all students, including students who are LGBTQI or perceived to be LGBTQI, from sex-based harassment. Harassment based on sex and sexual orientation are not mutually exclusive. When students are harassed based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation, they may also be subjected to forms of sex discrimination recognized under Title IX. Federal protective laws include:
      1. Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
      2. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972
      3. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
      4. Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act
      5. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
    7. Students from two high school newspapers in Petaluma and Sebastopol recently published articles on the rise of hate speech in their schools, a lack of adequate response from administrators, and observations of "white supremacy masquerading as nationalism". This echoes findings in the April 2016 report "The Trump Effect" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, in which 2000 teachers were interviewed nationwide.  The report showed that racial harassment in schools is clearly on the rise, and states that "other students have been emboldened by the divisive, often juvenile rhetoric in the campaign. Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail."
    8. Parents felt that filing OCR complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights were their only option for assistance without support from their school and district administrators. While this is their right, the process is complex, taxing on school districts’ and parents’ resources. Community feedback also points to the existence of more incidents and systemic problems of discrimination than are reflected in the complaint data.
    9. Within the past 18 months, there have been cases within the county of at least one suicide attributed to discriminatory bullying, anecdotal reports of attempted and actual assaults based on race and sexual orientation, an increase in verbal and online threats, and the use of racist slogans and confederate and American flags on student vehicles and within school athletics programs to intimidate students of color, LGBTQI students and students with disabilities.
  3. Commission Actions
    1. In addition to hearing testimony from parents, students and educators over several months of meetings, the commission reviewed federal OCR data and UCP data from 2010-2015 with assistance from SCOE and school districts.  The data was requested and received during a three day period in June 2016. Findings include 57 OCR complaints county wide during the period (updated 2/23/17). Top county recipients of OCR complaints:
      1. Santa Rosa City Schools (16)
      2. West Sonoma County Union High District (10)
      3. Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District (6)
      4. Petaluma Joint Union High School District (4)
      5. Santa Rosa High School (4)
    2. Of the number of OCR complaints above, five were related to racial harassment, with one open assault case at Santa Rosa High School at the time of this report's submission.
    3. Our findings indicated the most prevalent issue codes (one OCR may have multiple issue codes) are as follows:
      1. FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education)  (18)
      2. Retaliation (10)
      3. Evaluation and Placement (9)
      4. Interests and Abilities (7)
      5. Different Treatment/Exclusion/Denial of Benefits & Other (6)
      6. Sexual Harassment (insults, slurs, derogatory expressions, verbal intimidation (6)
    4. Some districts appear to take proactive steps and no longer received OCR complaints after several years. Others continued to have OCR complaints filed during the entire time span, which suggests a need for review and adjustment of disciplinary policies and protocol.
    5. Discrimination can also appear as a component of other complaint categories shown to be patterns within the data such as placement, interests and abilities, retaliation and FAPE. Through conditions of implicit bias, an inherent aspect of lowered expectations can exist for students of color, which can be exacerbated by bullying and harassment as student performance drops.  However, complaints would not be categorized as such unless there is an obvious indicator such as a verbal slur accompanying the harassment.
    6. Additionally the Commission requested Uniform Complaint Process data (UCP)  for the same time period from all 40 Districts, with 30 responses received. Three(3) UCPs specific to racial discrimination were reported by Districts, and two(2) UCPs specific to interests & abilities and sexual harassment. However, the Commission notes that Community feedback from parents, students and teachers points to the existence of a larger problem than is shown in the UCP data. It was reported to the Commission that the Uniform Complaint Process was challenging for parents to navigate, with extra difficulty for English Language Learning parents, not easily accessible on District websites, and parents feared or experienced retaliation for filing a complaint.
  4. Commission Recommendations
    Thank you for considering the recommendations of the Commission. Our goal is that our schools make it a priority to be proactive about the health and well-being of protected student groups, which means first and foremost, creating a safe educational environment in which they are free from discrimination, harassment and violations of human rights. We thank you for your partnership and support and we are willing to assist with referrals to resources for the recommendations contained in this report.

    Copies have been distributed to:

    Sonoma County Superintendents
    Sonoma County Board of Education
    Socorro Shiels, Director of Education, California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE)
    County of Sonoma Board of Supervisors
    Congressman Jared Huffman
    Congressman Mike Thompson
    Assemblymember Mark Levine
  5. The Sonoma County Office of Education is defined to the commission as a fiscal agent not overseeing specific policies of school districts. However, as a partner to schools and districts in assistance with meeting legal mandates, providing additional training for administrators and educators, and participating in review and approval of LCAP budgets,it is assumed that considerations for policy changes and additions benefiting the well-being of protected student groups could be championed by SCOE and approved suggestions disseminated to all districts within the county.
  6. Advise all districts to be proactive in issuing statements to students, parents, teachers and administrative staff that harassment of all kinds, including acts based on race, color, or national origin will not be tolerated. Insure that the statements include information on how to file a complaint, time frames in which to do so, information for the point of contact within each district, and clearly define the possible disciplinary actions for those who engage in harassment, which by law should include suspension or expulsion of students and suspension or terminations of employees.
  7. Insure that anti-discrimination policies, the Uniform Complaint Process and procedure, and how to file an OCR complaint are transparent and accessible in English and Spanish to all parents on school and district websites. Clearly define the complaint process and identify who to submit complaints to. As an example, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District has recently moved their policy to the top of their home page with links to documents in English and Spanish under the heading “Providing a Safe, Non-Discriminatory School Environment”. However, the complaint process does not appear to be included in these documents, and search results for “uniform complaint” and “file a complaint” returned no search results. While the complaint protocol can be found on school websites, it is often difficult for parents to find and parents may be frustrated.  Additionally some districts do not appear to have OCR information readily available. As an example, Brockton Public Schools has a strong, clear policy page which explains civil rights, the grievance procedure and protocol, and informs parents of their right to file an OCR complaint. The commission has noted that SCOE website has recently included verbiage and a link to the Office of Civil Rights, which is a positive improvement.
  8. Looking to regional and state examples of proactive implementations of policy changes to address discrimination and harassment, schools within the San Francisco Unified District and others have adopted or are in the process of adopting zero tolerance policies on hate speech, which is considered by many to be a form of violence--highly likely to become physical without appropriate intervention. Cal Poly Pomona’s hate response protocol is comprehensive and succinct, stating the intentions for a discrimination free campus and the steps to be taken by the university’s response team in the case of incidents. This policy could be reviewed as a model for development and inclusion into Sonoma County school districts, and would assist in insuring Title VI and Title IX compliance.
  9. Insure that all district staff responsible for documenting and processing complaints are knowledgeable of Title VI protections and regulations. Consider the implementation of an equity officer for the county to assist schools in compliance with Title VI and Title IX protections guaranteed to all students. 

    Updated 2/23/17
  10. The Sonoma County Office of Education reported to the CHR on 1/26/17 that “in accordance with SB 1375, Jackson, Educational Equity, effective January 1, 2017, the “California Sex Equity Education Act” school districts and the county office are required to post in a prominent and conspicuous location on its website: contact information, pupil rights and a description of how to file a Title IX complaint…Title XI requires that schools districts as independent Local Education Agencies (LEA) to appoint a Title IX coordinator, adopt and publish rules and procedures on how to receive, investigate and respond to a complaint and parent, student and staff notification of rights. Districts and the Sonoma County Office of Education are currently working to comply with this new law (July 1st, 2017)…”
  11. The CHR notes that currently there is no state mandate for similar provisions under Title VI and as such the implementation and enforcement of civil rights protections against discrimination based on race, color, national origin or religion still fall under the responsibility of schools and districts.
    Updated 3/13/17
  12. The CHR notes that a recent investigation concluded (September, 2016) by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of a complaint filed (February, 2016) against the West Sonoma County Union School District and Analy High School found that:

    "the District violated Title VI because the evidence showed that: (1) the harassing conduct on the basis of race was sufficiently serious so as to limit or deny the Student's ability to participate or benefit from the District's program; (2) the District had actual and constructive notice about the harassment; and (3) the District failed to take an appropriate, prompt, and effective responsive action that was within its authority to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment that was created, prevent its recurrence, and remedy the effects of the harassment on the Student."
    The District was presented with a resolution agreement containing a comprehensive list of actions including Individual Remedies, Anti-Harassment Statements, Written Guidance and Training of District Personnel and Students, Climate Surveys, Maintenance of Data, and Monitoring and Reporting. The serious nature of the educational and emotional impact on the complainant, the investigation of the complaint and the findings of the OCR underscore the necessity for Title VI compliance by schools and districts within Sonoma County, and proper oversight of implementation of civil rights protections.
  13. Consider the creation of a parent advisory council for protected student groups such as currently exists in the San Francisco Unified School District, which strengthens communication between schools and the community and has the ability to improve cultural competence for teachers and administrators.
  14. Encourage diversity hiring goals for teaching staff and active recruitment of teachers of color.
  15. Insure adequate cultural competence training for counselors, teachers and administrators, coaches and support staff including bus drivers, through SCOE workshops and trainings, and direct training for districts with patterns of discrimination or inadequate response to resolution.
  16. Encourage county wide use of free educator tools such as Responding to Hate and Bias at School provided by the Teaching for Tolerance program of the Southern Poverty Learning Center.
  17. Support the use of Restorative Justice where appropriate.

Contact Information

Commission on Human Rights
County of Sonoma
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Sonoma County Administration Building
575 Administration Drive
Suite 116B
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
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