by Ryan Burns
SAN FRANCISCO – The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the National Center for Youth Law Wednesday charged that school officials in the Humboldt County towns of Loleta and Eureka, home to some of the state’s largest Native American communities, intentionally discriminate against Native American and Black students, and students with disabilities, levying disproportionate levels of discipline for minor infractions and forcing them out of mainstream schools at disproportionate rates.
In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the groups allege that top officials in the Eureka City Schools District subject Black and Native American children to a racially hostile educational environment by allowing pervasive racial harassment to persist unchallenged, intentionally pushing Native American students out of mainstream schools and into alternative schools, and teaching students racially-offensive and culturally-denigrating curricula. School district staff also witness without any intervention, and even participate in, what have become weekly traditions called “titty-twisting Tuesdays” and “slap-ass Fridays,” where students have their nipples, breasts and buttocks grabbed and hit in school hallways, locker rooms and other areas of district schools.
Also on Wednesday, the groups joined with California Indian Legal Services to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education asking that the Office for Civil Rights investigate what the groups charge is ongoing racial discrimination against Native American students by Loleta Union School District employees. Filed on behalf of the Wiyot Tribe of the Table Bluff Rancheria and with the support of the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria, the complaint charges that staff at Loleta Elementary School physically assault Native American students, use racial slurs in front of Native American students and routinely suspend or expel Native American students for minor behavioral infractions.
“Black and Native American students in Eureka and Loleta are routinely subjected to unacceptable and unconstitutional racially discriminatory treatment,” said Michael Harris, senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law. “All students in California, regardless of race or gender, must receive equal educational opportunity and the chance to reach their full academic potential.”
The lawsuit, which names as defendants the members of the Eureka City Schools District Board of Education and the district’s superintendent, among other school officials, charges that blatant racial harassment occurs regularly as white students frequently use racial slurs to refer to Black students and commit violence against Native American and Black students without ever being disciplined by school staff.
Native American and Black students are also disciplined differently and much more harshly than white students. According to school district data from the 2011-2012 school year, Black students were suspended from some Eureka schools at a rate as much as five times higher than their enrollment rate while Native American students were suspended from some schools at a rate three times higher than their enrollment rate. Comparatively, white students are suspended at or about their rate of enrollment in district schools. Additionally, Native American students are pushed out of mainstream schools and into county-run community schools designed for high-risk youth and which do not appropriately prepare students planning to attend college. The Native American population at the Eureka Community School was three times higher than their overall district enrollment rate in 2011-2012, district data shows.
District curriculum also ignores or actively affronts the racial and cultural history of Native American and Black students by utilizing materials that use the word “savage,” “negro,” and “nigger” without examining the offensiveness or historical context of those terms.
“Despite repeated complaints to school district staff and administrators, students of color in Eureka have continued to be subjected to racially and sexually hostile school climates,” said Jory Steele, managing attorney and director of education equity for the ACLU of Northern California. “It is imperative that school officials be held accountable for failing to uphold their constitutional obligation to ensure that all Eureka students are protected from harassment and discrimination.”
According to the Office for Civil Rights complaint, the physical and verbal abuse that Native American students in Loleta are subjected to is a perpetuation of a historical practice of Native American marginalization that dates back nearly 150 years. Modern day examples of Loleta students having their ears grabbed by the school superintendent who then exclaims, “See how red it’s getting?” or school district staff referring to Native American students during a school board meeting as “goats” and “sheep,” are reminiscent of the reports of pervasive physical abuse and malnourishment at the boarding schools Native Americans were sent to beginning in the late 1870’s.
American Indian and Alaskan Native students have less access to educational resources in California than students from any other ethnic group, according to a 2012 report, and Humboldt County reflects that disturbing trend: less than 10 Native American students in all of Humboldt County completed the course requirements necessary to gain admittance to a California State University or University of California school during the 2010-2011 school year.
“Eradicating all forms of discrimination from the school system in Loleta is key to ensuring that Native American students are able to achieve educational and professional success,” said Delia Parr, directing attorney for California Indian Legal Services. “Denying Native Americans equal educational opportunities only serves to ensure they will experience poorer educational and socioeconomic outcomes, and that is a cycle that must be broken.”