Parents, students, teachers, and community advocates were among the attendees who packed the Kern High School District (KHSD) board chambers on the evening of Jan. 30 for the district’s second community forum on school climate, a condition of the discrimination settlement agreement, which requires KHSD, among other things, to hold two community forums a year where administrators must present data related to suspensions, expulsions and involuntary transfers. The agreement also mandates that the district celebrate Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month and allow students to celebrate these events.

Sahar Durali, directing attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, which took part in the suit settlement answered a few questions about the progress the district has made with regard to school climate.

BHC-SK: This is the second KHSD community forum on school climate. In an over-arching sense, what progress has been made with regard to the lawsuit settlement? What needs to be improved?
SD: The district has made some progress with respect to reducing suspension, expulsion, and transfer numbers. However, the data released at the community forum demonstrates significant disparities still exist in discipline of students of color, especially African-American students. It appears the district has also moved forward with a more comprehensive implementation of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), and more staff are being trained on PBIS, implicit bias, and social emotional learning concepts. However, KHSD board members have not been trained, and have not indicated whether or not they will participate in any trainings related to PBIS, implicit bias, and social emotional learning concepts.
The district should do more to reduce disparities in discipline. Additionally, during the forum it became evident that some schools still have alarmingly high suspension rates, especially for African-American students. Moreover, school climate surveys reveal that students of color feel especially racially harassed and isolated. The district should do more to address the racially hostile environment these students are facing.
BHC-SK: Now for some specifics with regard to the settlement: Why is KHSD not leading celebrations of Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month, especially when these celebrations are so meaningful to create a healthy school climate?
SD: The District agreed to recognize Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month under the settlement. At the last two community forums, the District indicated it was recognizing these months by allowing students to celebrate them. Dr. Brenda Lewis [KHSD Assistant Superintendent of Instruction] also stated that the district had alerted administrators that they should permit students and student organizations to put on events. At no point did the district communicate that individual school sites or the District were leading their own events.
We believe this narrow interpretation of the settlement is at odds with the spirit of the agreement and the District’s stated commitment to improve school climate for African-American and Latino students. By putting the burden on student clubs and student organizations to put on celebratory events, the District is sending an explicit message that Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month are not a priority and are not worthy of District resources and staff time. Additionally, based on the District’s communications, we suspect that at schools where student clubs are not active, and no student initiates celebrations, Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month are simply not being commemorated. It is standard practice for schools statewide and nationwide to put on events during these cultural months, and a commitment to celebrating Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month could go a long way to build trust and repair relationships with the Latino and African-American communities.
BHC-SK: As part of the agreement, the school district is required to train teaching and non-teaching staff on implicit bias. During the forum an attendee asked whether the KHSD board would be required to get this training as well. Do you feel that training the school board is important? Why or why not?
SD: Training the school board on implicit bias would demonstrate to the community that the Kern High School District is engaging in self-reflection and taking a meaningful step forward to eliminate bias at the highest levels of leadership.
BHC-SK: The district has been successful at reducing expulsions and transfers rates, but we still see disparities when it comes to African-American students. What should KHSD do to address this?
SD: The settlement identifies the need to address racial disparities by requiring that the District address bias and implicit bias through training, review of policies and development of the behavior matrix. Rachel Godsil of the Perception Institute and Dr. Eddie Fergus were identified in the settlement agreement because of their expertise in this area, along with Dr. Nancy Dome. Their recommendations must be implemented by the District in a meaningful manner to make sure that these disparities do not continue.
BHC-SK: In a survey conducted by the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), 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. Clearly, KHSD needs to improve how it treats African-American students. Any specific suggestions, even beyond the settlement?
SD: Under the Local Control Funding Formula, school districts must create specific goals for numerically significant student subgroups in their Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). At the KHSD, African-American students are a numerically significant subgroup. The district could follow in the footsteps of other school districts to create more targeted, comprehensive programs that create supports specifically for African American students. Additionally, the district should work with its commissioned experts, Rachel Godsil of the Perception Institute and Nancy Dome of Epoch Education, to identify the root of the expressed isolation of African-American students, and to work to eliminate harassment of these students by other students and/or staff. Both Rachel Godsil and Nancy Dome are leading experts in addressing implicit bias and racially hostile educational environments and could work closely with the district to create solutions at all levels.
BHC-SK: KHSD is a diverse district. Results from the CHKS suggest that the administration and staff have not done enough to embrace that diversity and ensure that all students are valued for who they are and the rich personal and cultural experiences they bring to the district. The settlement agreement addresses the training that staff may need to address these issues. How can KHSD address these discipline disparities?
SD: One way that KHSD could probably address discipline disparities and create a more inviting school environment for African-American students and other students of color is to ensure school staff are representative of their student body. The district made a commitment to recruit and hire a diverse staff in both the settlement agreement and their LCAP, which is the document that lays out their priorities for each school year and the budget expenditures related to those priorities. In fact, the LCAP specifically created a goal for hiring teachers that reflect the student demographics. However, of the new hires for the 2017-18 school year, 62.6% were white, 26.3% were Latino, and 2.6% were African American. In comparison to the demographic makeup of the student body, which is approximately 22% white, 65% Latino, 5.9% African-American, 2.6% Asian, 1.3% Filipino, and 2% identified as another race, the District is falling drastically short of their goal!

Read more about KHSD’s Forum on School Climate from South Kern Sol here.

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