OCR report reveals inconsistent discipline practices

Claire Gilliland, Editor-in-Chief

Lodi Unified School District was cited by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for disciplining African American students more often and more harshly than those of other races.

“Almost half of the suspensions … at Bear Creek and McNair High … were issued to African American students, even though African American students made up only 15% of the students at those two high schools,” the report said.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigated the District’s disciplinary actions from 2011-2015 before releasing its report. The investigation started in 2013 when a school went against the district code in the discipline of two students, one (Student A, an African American student) who hit the other (Student B, a white student) after Student B repeatedly used racial slurs against Student A.

According to the District code, both offenses were of the same level of severity, Level Two, meaning that the minimum and maximum suspensions for both were the same, though it said Student A was also faced with additional punishments such as a social probation. Student A was punished according to the maximum punishment laid out by the District code, as it was ruled that there was no discretion to give him a lesser punishment despite the fact that he was aggravated by racial slurs. Student B, however, faced a punishment less than the minimum laid out in the District code because administrators followed the school’s more lenient discipline code.

“Each school seemed to have developed matrices of their school rules,” Asst. Suptd. Dawn Vetica said. “As the years progressed, individual sites may have revised their matrices without referring to the [district’s] student code of conduct.”

After receiving complaints from students and parents, the OCR investigated the District for violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which prohibits discrimination due to race, color, or national origin in federally funded institutions.

“OCR reviewed discipline data from several schools and found that African American students are more likely … to be disciplined … and are more likely to receive a higher level of discipline…,” LUSD Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer said in an email to staff members.

According to both the OCR report and Principal Hillary Harrell, though LUSD does not intentionally discriminate on the basis of race, many policies and codes, especially those with subjective words such as “disruptive” or “defiant,” led to discrimination in the District’s disciplinary actions.

“In a situation in which I could give you one to three days, like [for] … some things where there’s wiggle room, what the OCR found was that white students … were often times given the lesser consequence, whereas students who are African American were given the … harsher consequence,” Harrell said.

Because the District was not purposefully discriminating against African American students, it did not face a punishment but rather a requirement that they must repair conduct codes and undergo training in proper discipline.

“If a district does not comply or refuses to reach an agreement with OCR, they can withhold money that is received from the federal government, such as Title I,” Vetica said. “This will not happen in Lodi’s case because the agreement has been signed.”

The District is working with schools to maintain a more rigid code of conduct.

“Schools have been asked to discontinue the use of their site [discipline] matrix and use the district code of conduct for student discipline,” Vetica said.

To address this issue, the District also developed a program — Positive Behavior Intervention and Support, or PBIS — to help revise District policies, work with community members and students to create a positive school environment, and provide additional help like counseling for students.

Parents were not satisfied with PBIS when they heard its proposal at a District-held community meeting at Delta Sierra September 29, complaining that it blames students for the difference in discipline in the District rather than the staff members and that the plan would take too long to complete.

“As long as it took them to write the report — three years or something like that — it’s going to take us that long to fill our end of the bargain,” Harrell said.