ACLU sues Pittsburg colleges over ‘particular training
By Carolyn Jones | EdSource
The results for disabled students – especially those studying blacks or English – in a Bay Area school district are so poor that the district is essentially denying students their right to an education, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.
Pittsburg Unified, in East Bay, disproportionately placed black students and English learners in special education classes, failed to offer them the services they needed, and were more likely to suspend or deport those students, according to the Northern California lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The lawsuit filed in the Contra Costa County Superior Court names the district, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and the state of California as defendants.
“Black students are literally being denied access to education and that’s not right,” said one of the plaintiffs, Jessica Black, who said her daughter, who is black, had fallen academically behind after enrolling in Pittsburg Unified special school . “I know we are not the only family to experience this injustice. I wanted to bring light into the darkness. “
District Inspector Janet Schultze called the lawsuit “disappointing” because she said much of the information was misleading and did not take into account the progress the district has made in recent years in closing performance gaps between student groups and ensuring high quality education for all pupil.
“We will not allow this lawsuit to distract us from the significant efforts of our district and our employees to identify and correct inequalities,” said Schultze. “As attorneys address this situation, I am confident that the facts will correct the many misleading comments in the ACLU’s statement, and I am equally confident that this will not deter the dedicated professionals in our district from referring to the The needs of our students who are the focus of their work every day. “
Pittsburg Unified is a 11,015 student neighborhood in eastern Contra Costa County where 95% of students are non-white and 77% are low-income. Slightly more than 11% are enrolled in special schools, which is roughly the national average.
But students in Pittsburg Unified’s special education classes fare very differently from their disabled peers across the country. You are almost twice as likely and more than five times as likely to be suspended for willful defiance – a discipline category defined as disruption to school activity according to data from the California Department of Education from 2018-19. California recently banned willful suspension of defiance in elementary and middle schools and encouraged counties to use restorative justice – encouraging students to speak up about their conflicts – and counseling as an alternative.
Students with disabilities in Pittsburg Unified were also more likely to be chronically absent, defined as being absent for more than 10% of school days. Almost 22% were chronically absent in 2018-19, compared to 19.5% nationwide.
“Pittsburg Unified has a separate, unequal and illegal education system for color students and people with disabilities,” said Linnea Nelson, senior attorney for the ACLU in Northern California. “They are placed in inferior learning environments and unjustifiably suspended and excluded.”
The lawsuit calls on the district to improve its process of identifying students with disabilities so that black and Latin American students are not disproportionately placed in special schools; Offer more tutoring and other academic services to students in special needs education so that they can catch up with their peers; and amend disciplinary protocols so that black and Latin American students and those with disabilities are not disproportionately suspended or expelled.
Jessica Black’s troubles with the district began not long after the family moved to Pittsburg from Minnesota, she said. When her daughter, a third grader with a learning disability, went to school, she was often teased Afro-style because of her weight and hair. One day a white boy spat on her and she threw an apple at him, Black said.
As a punishment, the district put Black’s daughter in a small counseling class next to her peers, where she fell behind academically, Black said. In sixth grade, Black enrolled her daughter in regular middle school, but the transition and academic challenges proved too great and Black’s daughter negotiated. In sixth grade, she was suspended more than 20 times. One day when Black’s daughter stormed out of a classroom, a county employee called the police and, according to the lawsuit, she was strapped to a stretcher and taken to a mental hospital.
In eighth grade, she was enrolled in independent study where she is staying. As an eleventh grader, she did math in second grade, her mother said. She wants to return to regular high school with academic and advisory support so she can graduate and go to college.
“My daughter was punished for childish behavior. She would have benefited from trauma-informed practices, ”said Black. “There is a lot at stake because there is still some time left and I don’t want my daughter to end up in the pipeline from school to jail. … That’s our life.”
Other students also suffered under the district’s policies, according to the lawsuit. A boy, a second grade English student with autism, was taken to a special education classroom where he watched Disney movies and did handicrafts instead of learning to read as the suit says.
Another student, a girl with learning disabilities who is learning English, is so academically lagging behind that she has to repeat grade 12 to graduate.
It’s not the first time Pittsburg Unified has been scrutinized for its special education practices. In 2016, a district-appointed advisor recommended dozens of improvements for the education of students with disabilities in the district. The ACLU lawsuit alleges that the district has not yet adopted many of these recommendations.