The U.S. Department of Education is investigating allegations of racism in Mira Loma High School’s prestigious International Baccalaureate program after the National Center for Youth Law filed a civil rights complaint saying school officials did nothing when African American students were harassed and belittled because of their race.
The complaint also charges that African American students at Mira Loma are suspended at unusually high rates, and that the school has denied African American students access to educational opportunities.
The complaint was filed on behalf of Makayla Madkins and De’Ajhane Caldwell, two cousins who both attended the elite IB program at the campus in the 2016-17 school year. The two girls were among a handful of black students in the program, which was dominated by white and Asian students. They say they were continually harassed by a classmate they identified as Persian, and who is identified simply as V.B. in the complaint.
San Juan Unified School District acknowledged Tuesday that it had received a letter from the federal Office of Civil Rights requesting information. “Any concerns that have been raised to us directly we have investigated, and we will continue to work until we reach a full resolution,” said district spokesman Trent Allen.
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The complaint, filed in December, says the boy targeted Caldwell during her first-period Spanish class, calling her the N-word and making other racist and offensive comments as often as twice a week.
Often, when Caldwell raised her hand in class to speak, the boy would say that black people are dumb, referring to her with the N-word, the complaint charges. He also used sexually derogatory language, said Makayla Madkins’s sister Chardonnay Madkins, a 2010 graduate of the IB program.
“It made me kind of feel bad, but it also made me angry,” Caldwell said Tuesday. “He would say it a lot.”
The complaint says the Spanish teacher heard the boy’s comments on several occasions, but intervened only once. The teacher sent him to the office after he referred to Caldwell as “a N-word” while he was arguing with another student. Caldwell said the teacher never spoke to her about the incident even after sending V.B. out of the room.
The boy returned to class just five minutes after he left and continued harassing her through the school year, according to the complaint.
Caldwell said the abuse was so routine, “after a while, I just got used to it.” She said the harassment prevented her from fully participating in class because she feared the boy’s racist comments.
At the same time Caldwell, 16, was being targeted by V.B. in class, the complaint says he also used racial slurs against her cousin Madkins online – though the girls at first did not realize they were being targeted by the same boy.
Madkins, 17, objected to the use of derogatory language against mentally impaired people that V.B.’s sister, also a Mira Loma student, had posted on Instagram, the complaint says. In response, Madkins said in an interview, V.B. called her the N-word in a social media post.
V.B. also called a friend of Madkins’ a “crippled ass N-word” on her Instagram account and called other students who complained about his post “N-words,” the complaint alleges. The online harassment accelerated with the boy and his friends adding sexual slurs about the girls to their derogatory posts on Instagram and Twitter.
Makayla Madkins and other students took screenshots of the comments and brought them to the vice principal’s office, but were turned away by her secretary who sent them to their counselor, the complaint says. It adds that the students reported the incident to the counselor, but didn’t hear back from any school officials.
Madkins and her mother, Latrice Madkins, tried numerous times to meet with school administrators but were put off, said Latrice Madkins in an interview. When Latrice Madkins was able to meet with up with the counselor in December, she was told she hadn’t forwarded the information to the vice principal because she thought the situation had resolved itself.
Latrice Madkins was not able to get an appointment to see the vice principal until school reconvened after the holidays. During that period, she decided to pull her daughter out of Mira Loma and to send her to a local Catholic school.
“Mira Loma was the school that she should have been at, but I was not going to let the school tear her up as a person,” Latrice Madkins said.
But Caldwell had moved from the Bay Area into her aunt’s Sacramento house to attend the program, and was not able to quickly move to another school, said Chardonnay Madkins. When Caldwell returned to Mira Loma after break, the harassment continued.
The complaint says a meeting between Chardonnay Madkins, Latrice Madkins and the vice principal resulted in a promises to launch an investigation, discuss school policy with teachers who failed to address the problem, intervene on Caldwell’s behalf with V.B. and develop better policies and procedures to handle student complaints.
Latrice Madkins said they were told V.B. had admitted to the principal he had used the racial slurs. But again, nothing seemed to change for Caldwell.
“I feel like they were just saying what we wanted to hear so we would leave them alone,” said Latrice Madkins.
At a follow up meeting in February, the vice principal’s demeanor changed negatively, according to the complaint. The family asked asked that V.B. be removed from the class, but their request was turned down, Chardonnay Madkins said. Instead, the vice principal focused on Caldwell, Chardonnay Madkins said, going into her Spanish class to observe her and watch her work.
“This kind of implied that (Caldwell) is the one that needs monitoring,” said Chardonnay Madkins. “She thought that she was in trouble. ... Even when we were trying to make the environment safer for her, the administration did the exact opposite and singled her out in class and that made her uncomfortable.”
Latrice Madkins said she then received an email from the vice principal, “saying Caldwell was doing just fine, her grades were fine, so therefore I had nothing to say to her.”
Soon after, said Caldwell, V.B. was moved to a desk directly behind her.
“She was, I would say, really defeated. She couldn’t depend on her teacher to do anything because (V.B) had been doing it all year,” said Chardonnay Madkins.
Caldwell left Mira Loma when the school year ended and is now trying to finish her high school diploma online.
“It kind of put me off track,” said Caldwell. “I am not really the kind of person for home school ... that kind of messed me up but I am working through it.”
Caldwell and Makayla Madkins said their experiences were not unique in the school. Both girls said that they believed students in the IB program, where there are only a handful of black students, are treated differently from the rest of Mira Loma teenagers – especially black ones.
The girls’ complaint charges that Mira Loma engages in de facto segregation by concentrating the vast majority of its resources on the IB program. Teachers would encourage IB students to apply to Ivy League universities, but would openly complain about how difficult it was to teach non-IB students.
African American students make up only about 10 percent of Mira Loma students, and an even smaller segment of the IB program. In the 2013-14 school year, there were 121 black students at the school, seven in the IB program – down from 10 black students the two previous years. The IB program was nearly 50 percent Asian and 41 percent white that year. Less than 2 percent of the students were black.
The complaint also alleges that the school targets black students for discipline at far higher rates than other races.
Mira Loma suspended 28 percent of its African American students during the last school year, nearly triple the statewide rate of suspensions for African Americans, according to a Bee analysis of California Department of Education data. Black students at Mira Loma were three times as likely to face suspension as Hispanic students; four times as likely as whites and 16 times as likely as Asians.
District spokesman Allen said race issues are being dealt with by the district and the school.
“Certainly the conversation around race and racism has been one that has been at the forefront over the last year,” Allen said. “We do work very hard to make sure we have channels in place to report issues and concerns do come up.”
He said there has been an effort to amplify students’ voices on campuses by starting student listening circles, a superintendent student advisory group and opening an Office of Equity and Student Achievement.
Latrice Madkins said she planned to speak at Tuesday night’s San Juan Unified School District Board meeting about the complaint and what she and the girls see as a need for further action.
“I want people to know that discrimination and racism of any kind are never acceptable,” said Makayla Madkins. “It’s disruptive to my learning environment. I was supposed to feel safe and I didn’t feel safe anymore.”