She was called the N-word by a classmate. District says the initial complaint was mishandled

De’Ajhane Caldwell and Makayla Madkins complained last school year to Mira Loma High School officials after being called the N-word and other racially and sexually derogatory terms by a fellow student in Spanish class and online.

The Spanish teacher sent the boy to the office only once, according to a federal civil rights complaint filed by the National Center for Youth Law last month. He returned within five minutes. The girls showed a counselor screen shots of the online abuse. Their guardian complained to the vice principal.

The family asked that the boy be removed from class, said Chardonnay Madkins, a 2010 Mira Loma graduate and older sister of Makayla. They also asked that the school contact the boy’s family about his behavior. But he remained in the class and school officials didn’t offer additional information to the Madkins family, she said.

Like most districts, San Juan Unified tells students who feel harassed or discriminated against to report complaints to a teacher or school administrator. But school leaders and teachers seemingly have broad discretion to determine how to deal with complaints.

“(The district) encourages resolution at the lowest possible level,” said district spokesman Trent Allen. “That is where relationships live.”

Allen acknowledged that in the case of Caldwell and Madkins, the initial report wasn’t handled as it should have been. “The concern should have been addressed and brought to the attention of others when it was first shared by the student,” he said.

He said the student initially reported her concerns to a school counselor, who thought the issue was a limited dispute that had been resolved. The counselor did not follow up with the concern or report it to site administration.

“It was not until the student and family brought their concern to a vice principal, after several weeks, that staff were able to actively engage on the issue and attempt to find an appropriate resolution,” Allen said. “A student nor their family members should have to wait an extended period for action to be taken.”

Tyrone Howard, an expert on the role of race in education and the associate dean of equity and inclusion at UCLA, said allowing teachers to decide what rises to the level of further reporting is too subjective. School districts need uniform procedures that are clearly communicated to students, he said.

He said teachers should report all acts of harassment, bullying or sexual violence to school administrators. In turn, administrators should be required to notify parents, who are often left out of the loop when complaints are lodged at schools.

Allen said further evaluation by the district resulted in adding weekly counselor and administrator meetings this year at Mira Loma to discuss student issues and concerns. In the meetings, staff discuss intervention, bullying, racism and campus culture in general, he said.

As part of the district’s response to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights request, San Juan Unified will continue to review the case and determine if it needs to make other changes to how it handles such complaints, he said.

“We are always open to suggestions, always looking for ways we can do better,” Allen said. “We recognize there is work that needs to be done.”

Mira Loma Principal Lynne Tracy said in a letter to families this week, “School staff have previously looked into many of the claims made. Due to privacy rules I cannot share the outcome of that investigation at this time other than to say that action was taken with the students involved.”

Chardonnay Madkins said the current process gave them little confidence that school and district officials were looking out for her sister and cousin.

“It is up to the principal’s discretion,” Madkins said. “Then we go to the district, and they are of course going to agree with the principal.”

At San Juan Unified, if a student or parent isn’t able to resolve a problem with school site staff, they can contact the district’s Family and Community Engagement Office, the district’s legal office or anyone at the district office, Allen said. Students also can send a complaint to the “tell someone” service.

If the complaint involves discrimination or harassment based on a legally protected status, students and parents can file a federal uniform complaint with the district.

Information about reporting harassment is available in the student handbook and other materials given to families, Allen said. He said posters in bathrooms and classrooms also offer information on filing a federal complaint. The school is installing more posters Monday.

“The option is always there for someone who doesn’t feel the issue is resolved to take it to a the higher level,” he said.

In Tracy’s letter, which she said was prompted by media coverage of the federal investigation, the principal explained to students and parents how to report harassment and discrimination.

“If you take nothing else from this letter, know that we recognize there is a need to not only continue our work to create inclusiveness and equity but to also expand upon it, hopefully with your help,” she wrote.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

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