Residents remain concerned over KHSD’s disciplinary policies; district denies discrimination allegations

January 31, 2020 /

Though the Kern High School District asserts that the rates of suspensions and expulsions have decreased, local activists and parents of KHSD students took to the streets to show their continued discomfort with the district’s disciplinary policies.

Concerned community members and the families of KHSD students marched through Southwest Bakersfield from Ming Avenue to West High School and held a press conference before the district’s final public forum Thursday. 

“There’s a lot more to do because policies and a piece of paper is not enough,” said Mona Tawato, an attorney with the Equal Justice Society. 

The district was required to hold two public forums per year as part of the stipulations of a 2014 lawsuit, alleging KHSD disproportionately suspended and expelled students of color. 

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As part of the settlement, the KHSD agreed to hold six public forums to address disciplinary policies and school climate. In addition to the holding of public forums, the district is required to recruit and hire a diverse staff that reflects the population of the student body; hire Behavioral Intervention and Support experts; and allow students to celebrate Black History Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month. 

The march was led by Kern Education Justice Collaborative, a local organization that fights for education equity in Kern. The group is made up of individuals from the Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, the Dolores Huerta Foundation and many more.

Tawato said the goal of the march is to ensure the district is following the settlement agreement.

Though Tawato acknowledged changes have been made in the district’s disciplinary policy, she believes more changes must be implemented to truly make a difference. 

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Anthony Fuentes, a KHSD teacher, spoke of the merits of the changes implemented by the district but added that they “aren’t authentic enough.”

“We need these changes to come from the teachers themselves,” Fuentes said.

Suspension rates within the KHSD have dropped from 23 percent in 2016-17 to 8 percent in 2018-19. 

Overall, 57 percent of KHSD schools have seen a reduction in suspensions since the 2014-15 school year.

Despite these reductions, there is still a disparity in the populations that are suspended. African American students are 2.3 times more likely to be suspended than their non-black counterparts.

District Superintendent Bryon Schaefer said the disparities are “not a reflection of an intent or desire to discriminate.” 

Tamara Lora, a parent of three students at East High School was concerned by continued suspension rates of Black students. To Lora, the use of continuation schools is a pathway to the school-to-prison pipeline. 

“It is important that my kids get a chance to be treated fairly,” she said.  

In response to allegations of racism and outright discrimination, KHSD Associate Superintendent of Instruction Brenda Lewis said she is “deeply disturbed because that is false.”

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Lewis asked the community to stop engaging with talk of discrimination, as “that kind of narrative is divisive.” 

Though the KHSD implemented numerous changes to its disciplinary policies and matrices, it failed to hire an adequately diverse staff.

According to Michael Zulfa, Associate Superintendent of Human Resources in the KHSD, the lack of new hires is due to a shortage of teachers. 

Zulfa emphasized that the district has a “long-standing commitment” to acquiring a diverse staff. 

Though the district did not meet the community’s expectations for diverse hires, Zulfa pointed to the progress being made. The district has implemented new advertising strategies to acquire new teachers, recruiting both online and in person. 

Over the past five years, the district has hired more teachers of color. One in three newly-hired teachers are people of color, according to data provided by the KHSD. 

As the KSHD continues to address the disparities in discipline among racial lines, local community members and activists continue to fight for equity in the classroom.

Paige Atkison

Paige Atkison is a youth reporter for South Kern Sol. She is the editor in chief at The Renegade Rip at Bakersfield College and has been selected to partake in South Kern Sol's CA 2020: Democracy Media Fellowship.