Rebecca Buckley-Stein is an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (CRLA), which offers free legal services to low income or no income rural communities in California.
The firm works on cases that address issues regarding housing, education and farm workers’ and labor issues. CRLA also offers LGBTQ legal services and works with indigenous populations.
One of the cases CRLA is following up on is Sanders v. Kern High School District, where in 2014, community organizations alleged the district suspended and expelled minorities at higher rates than white students. The case was settled in 2017. In a settlement agreement, the district agreed to strengthen programs related to disciplinary practices and to establish disciplinary guidelines that would treat all students equally.
South Kern Sol’s JaNell Gore recently sat down with Buckley-Stein, 32, to talk about what CRLA is doing to ensure that the recent discrimination settlement is implemented in good faith.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your position with CRLA?
A: I’m a Directing Attorney with the CRLA Delano office. We have 22 offices up and down the state of California. Our law firm really tries to focus on doing the impact litigation.
There are two different types of legal services the organization works on.
One is to do direct services, and we do some of that. Direct services are when you take an individual case, and you just represent the individual. So for example, in our office, I defend low-income people that are getting evicted out of their house.
Most legal service organizations will just do that, but CRLA is a little different in that we also do impact litigation, which is where we will represent several individuals who have a problem.
Whatever result happens from that case, it will impact thousands of people.
A perfect example is the Kern High School District case. We represented a small group of kids who had been impacted, but the changes were able to affect all 40,000 students.
Q: Since the lawsuit settlement with KHSD, have you been seeing positive changes?
A: We have seen some positive changes. The school district is now working with experts in school discipline. Those experts are helping the schools develop a more meaningful and equitable way of dealing with student behaviors and discipline.
So we are seeing some positive changes, but the positive changes are going to take a long time because we are basically asking the school system to radically change the way they take students, and that kind of change doesn’t happen overnight because it’s a culture shift.
The settlement has a provision where it’s a three-year-long settlement, so they have three years to complete a certain amount of activities.
Q: What are some of the trends you are seeing in Kern County in regards to school discipline?
A: The reason we started the settlement was because back in 2011/ 2012, CRLA was watching what was happening with expulsions and suspensions across the state, and we kept seeing that Kern High School District had the highest rate of suspensions and expulsions in the state.
That was a red flag to us. So, we dug deeper into some of the data, and what we were seeing was not only Kern High School District pushing kids out at really high levels, but African American and Latino students were being pushed out at really ridiculous disproportionate rates to white students.
So, we sued them, and what we are seeing is that the general rate for suspensions and expulsions has gone down. So we are seeing drops where kids are no longer getting pushed out and disciplined in draconian ways like they had been in 2011 and 2012.
Even though the numbers have dropped, the rates of African American and Latino students are still disproportionate to white students, so we still need to work on that issue. We are hoping with this program under the settlement, teachers and administrators can get trained on how to deal with their implicit bias and how to acknowledge systematic racism that may be impacting why they are disciplining students of color differently than they would white students.
Q: Why do you think education requires persistent legal oversight?
A: Every child in the state of California has a right to education — period. Our role as lawyers is to make sure that every student in California gets the education that they deserve, and the education that they get is the same as any other student.
Our role as lawyers in the community is to sort of help the community voice their concerns about what’s happening to their kids at school and to help the schools figure out ways to meet the needs of all the students.
The practice of law in education is so important for rural communities, especially in Kern County. When the school system breaks down and doesn’t serve every single child, some kids get pushed out. It’s a school to nowhere or school-to-prison pipeline. Those kids are failed by the school system, and that failure travels with them for the rest of their life.
If you don’t have a quality education, you can’t go to college, which makes it really hard to find a job. When you don’t have a job, you get trapped in the cycle of poverty, which is usually linked to incarceration and others issues within the community.
When we deal with education injustices, we’re trying to prevent that cycle from happening — where kids are getting pushed out and have nowhere to go.
We work on education to ensure that students get their rights represented. We also try to shift the system so that all children have the same opportunity to be successful and productive members of society.
Q: As a legal organization, do you work on your own? How do you work with other organizations?
A: We work with Greater Bakersfield Legal Aid, which is here in town, and they provide amazing education resources.
We also partner with other law firms outside of Kern County. We worked with Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), based in Los Angeles, and with the Equal Justice Society, based in Oakland. Both law firms focus on civil rights litigation.
When we do litigation, we always try to bring in partners to work with us. We have worked with Faith in the Valley, Dolores Huerta Foundation, National Brotherhood Association, Jakara Movement and First and Always Melanin.
A lawyer can only be effective if they know what’s actually happening on the ground. Our community partners — these nonprofit organizations — are going into the school and providing education or training, or they’re providing services to children and families. They’re the ones who actually know what’s happening more than me sitting behind a desk in an office.
So when we partner up, it’s community organizations and community leaders who are better able to actually serve the community.
The Kern High School District is holding its second community forum to discuss student behavior and school climate. The presentation will include reports on suspensions, expulsions, discipline and referral data and more.
The community is invited to attend the forum from 7-9 p.m. on Thursday at DeMello Hall at West High School, 1200 New Stine Road.
The district will provide teleconferencing of the forum for Arvin, Shafter and Kern Valley high schools and will provide translation services.