By Robert J. Hansen | OBSERVER Correspondent

Parent Larayvian Barnes, left, Equal Justice Society attorney Mona Tawato, center, and BPSB Operations Director Carl Pinkston, right, meet at the BPSB office in Sacramento May 25, 2023. Robert J. Hansen, OBSERVER

The Black Parallel School Board and several families have reached a settlement with the Sacramento City Unified School District in a lawsuit that challenged the district’s long-standing practice of excluding and segregating Black students with disabilities.

Initially filed in 2019, the lawsuit accused SCUSD of discriminatory segregation of students with disabilities and Black students with disabilities into highly restrictive classrooms and schools, plus other harmful practices laid bare in a 2017 report, based on a district self-audit.

Plaintiffs alleged this failure contributed to grossly disparate rates of suspension and expulsion of Black students that were among the state’s worst for Black boys in 2018-19, as well as for students with disabilities.

BPSB Chairperson Darryl White said part of why the lawsuit took four years to settle was having to bring in an expert to help.

“We wanted to see specific types of outcomes,” White said.

“In the 2018-2019 school year, Black students with disabilities at SCUSD were more than 10 times more likely to be suspended from school than other students with disabilities — a group disciplined at much higher rates to begin with,” said Michael Harris, an attorney for the plaintiffs with the National Center for Youth Law. “This effectively deprives Black students with disabilities of their right to an equal education.” 

Within months of filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs and district were able to negotiate an interim agreement.

“The settlement agreement’s accountability measures will help SCUSD ensure that students with disabilities are receiving the services and supports they need to succeed in school, rather than being segregated from their nondisabled peers or subjected to unfair exclusionary discipline,” said Munmeeth Soni, an attorney for plaintiffs with Disability Rights California.

The OBSERVER sat down with impacted parent Larayvian Barnes, BPSB Operations Director Carl Pinkston and Mona Tawatao, an attorney at Equal Justice Society, to discuss how the lawsuit came about and what the May 19 settlement means for future students.

Pinkston said the issues central to the suit had been around for several years and were brought to the attention of SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar before the lawsuit was filed.

“We didn’t need more data. The parents were telling him to just do something,” Pinkston said.

Pinkston said SCUSD asked for the plaintiffs’ trust, and for them to wait for the district’s response.

“Nothing happened,” Pinkston said. “The frustration and the pain, the stories kept building to the point where we had to file.”

Feeling Pushed Out

Barnes, an individualized education program designated educator, said she realized something was wrong when her son — her third child to attend the school — began first grade. She said near the end of kindergarten, the district sent a team to evaluate her son for autism, which they incorrectly determined he did not have.

“When my son started first grade, I started experiencing things in his classroom and with his teacher that I hadn’t with my first two kids,” Barnes said.

Barnes said her son’s first-grade teacher told her, “I don’t see where he fits in my class.”

“We started with citations. He would be removed from class and sent to other places on the campus without any instruction, any work or any other students,” Barnes said.

There were times her son was sent into the hallway. Many of the behaviors Barnes’ son exhibited were considered behavioral issues, which he was being disciplined for rather than being provided the extra attention he required.

Barnes said her son’s second grade teacher treated him like a student with behavior problems rather than having a disability. 

“Anything that they had a problem with and anytime I asked for any kind of modifications, it was always like pulling teeth with his teachers,” Barnes said.

Barnes said her son was suspended nine times in the third grade and missed 17 days that school year.

Equal Justice Society Mona Tawato, center, discusses the lawsuit that challenged SCUSD’s treatment of Black students with disabilities with parent Larayvian Barnes, left, and Carl Pinkson, right. “It’s not just having disabilities; it’s not just being a Black student. It’s being a Black student with disabilities. There has to be a racial component when you’re talking about remedies,” Tawato said. Robert J. Hansen, OBSERVER

“The only days he missed were for suspension or when they sent him home,” Barnes said.

Barnes said her son experienced this “push-out” from not just teachers but peers.

“He was experiencing this push-out from a teacher that didn’t think he belonged and his peers were at that point, racially and disability-based bullying him,” Barnes said, adding that such treatment set back her son’s education several years.

Mona Tawatao of the Equal Justice Society said the case is unique because of how it intersects discrimination and disability rights.

“It’s not just having disabilities; it’s not just being a Black student,” Tawatao said. “It’s being a Black student with disabilities. There has to be a racial component when you’re talking about remedies.”

Black male students with disabilities are especially subject to being overdisciplined and segregated.

According to Tawatao the issues are twofold, disproportionate discipline based on race and also disability.

She said when you’re a Black student with disabilities, the chances to be disciplined is 11 or 10 times higher..

BPSB gave the district an opportunity to address these issues but after a couple of years felt forced to seek legal action.

The agreement is meant to benefit all students with disabilities, not just Black students, Tawatao said.

“We are proud of the work the district has already done to be more inclusive and less punitive, and we look forward to partnering with BPSB to produce better student outcomes moving forward,” said Aguilar, the SCUSD superintendent.

BPSB chairperson White said the organization didn’t take legal action because change was needed and “time was running out.”

“We had an opportunity to bring together about 35 African American families who were being mistreated,” White said.

Future Students Stand To Benefit

Pinkston said the district did begin making changes before an agreement was reached.

The practice of suspending students in kindergarten through eighth grades for willful defiance has been prohibited, Pinkston said.

But all three agreed the lawsuit wouldn’t have been necessary if Aguilar’s statements were completely genuine.

“I really hope that we can work together,” Tawatao said.

Pinkston said the aspiration to make it work is there, but that the district’s track record does not instill confidence.

“It’s the composition of this board that gives me a lot more hope than I had before,” Pinkston said.

The settlement agreement requires the appointment of an independent monitor not employed by the district to review existing reports and data on the district’s special education and school discipline practices. No monetary damages were sought in the lawsuit. 

Barnes said the changes that will be made are going to most benefit future students.

“It’s about hope, it’s about the children,” Barnes said. “A lot of the changes that we hope to have made … will be for those who are babies now.”

Tawatao called the agreement a win for more than 6,000 district students with disabilities.

“We are optimistic about the independent monitor [that] it will create accountability and help guide the district as it undertakes the essential work of dismantling a discriminatory system,” Antionette Dozier, plaintiff attorney of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said in a press statement.

The action plan will take into account initiatives and programs SCUSD recently began implementing. It also requires the district to reduce the disproportionate discipline of Black students and students with disabilities.

The plan must also impose measures to increase inclusive placements, provide ongoing support and training for school staff, and help create a reliable data collection system.

“We appreciate SCUSD working with the plaintiffs to come to an agreement that creates accountability and requires detailed plans and actions for positive change to benefit students and their families,” Tawatao said.

Pinkston said the changes have to be cultural.

“We don’t want slogans. Don’t talk to the cameras,” Pinkston said. “We want to see action.”

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.