Lawsuit alleges discrimination against disabled, black students at Sacramento City Unified

Superintendent Jorge Aguilar and members of the Sacramento City Unified school board discuss the district’s financial shortfall in October 2018.
Superintendent Jorge Aguilar and members of the Sacramento City Unified school board discuss the district’s financial shortfall in October 2018.

A coalition of nonprofit advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court against the Sacramento City Unified School District, alleging that the district discriminates against students with disabilities, especially black students.

Equal Justice Society, Disability Rights California, National Center for Youth Law and Western Center on Law and Poverty filed the suit in the Sacramento-based U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California on behalf of the Black Parallel School Board advocacy group and three students in the district.

The lawsuit names Sacramento City Unified, Superintendent Jorge Aguilar, the school board’s members including President Jessie Ryan, and its chief academic officer.

The organizations say that the district segregates, denies students with disabilities the right to an education side-by-side with their peers, and disciplines them more frequently.

“The district has created and perpetuated a system of segregation of students with disabilities,” said attorney Mona Tawatao of the Equal Justice Society in an interview Friday. “When we say segregation, we mean students with disabilities being put into separate classroom for large periods on any given day, pushing students out of the district and mistreating them. When we say segregation, it also encompasses exclusionary practices and excessive discipline for black students.”

Tawatao also said the district is failing to provide services, accommodations and modifications required by state law in order for students to thrive in an academic environment alongside their peers.

The lawsuit names three students, including a fourth-grader, referred to in the lawsuit by the pseudonym “Konrad,” who was diagnosed with autism, dyslexia and ADHD. The lawsuit states that Konrad is “repeatedly excluded from the District’s extracurricular and afterschool activities and has been singled out and subjected to shortened school days for prolonged periods of time.”

Konrad was formally suspended last school year a total of 17 school days, and kept in the office on many other occasions, according to the suit. The suit states that Konrad was suspended more than any other student at the school that year, and that district staff suggested that Konrad dis-enroll from the district, after he ran into the street during school hours and his guardians and doctor requested temporary home schooling.

Attorneys say that the district unilaterally sent students to non-public schools for children with disabilities that “do not provide the same classes or social rites of passage as traditional public high schools.”

Sacramento City Unified said it does not comment on potential litigation.

“Let it be clear that we will not tolerate any form of discrimination in our schools and are taking these allegations very seriously” read a statement from the district. “We will review the complaint once it is sent to us.”

Lawsuit against Sacramento City Unified School District

The Black Parallel School Board said it began receiving many complaints from district parents of children with disabilities, and subsequently put together a forum in 2017 to have parents share their experiences.

“It was a tearjerker,” said Darryl White, chairman of the Black Parallel School Board. “It was story after story that indicated that these children were not getting the services they needed in order to be successful in school.”

White said he believes the problems are rooted in an inadequate special education program at Sacramento City Unified.

“We had parents that have said it’s been so draining that it’s made an impact on how they make a living, because the students missed so many days of school,” he said.

In 2017, then-Superintendent José L. Banda asked the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of dozens of large urban school districts across the U.S. that includes Sacramento City Unified, to audit and review the district’s services for students with disabilities and provide recommendations.

The report found that African American children had the highest rates of emotional disturbance in the district, and tied Hispanics for the highest percentage of students with individualized education programs, or IEPs. African American and Hispanic students with IEPs were more likely to be suspended for more than 10 days than students without IEPs.

The report, released in spring 2017, identified and recommended systemic changes.

The audit found that the district’s attempt to staff special education was poor, and the program had “serious operational challenges,” particularly in transportation and paraprofessional hiring.

According to the audit, the district spent more than $10 million transporting special education students to district, nonpublic and county schools. The high cost was largely due to the district’s reliance on special schools to educate students with disabilities, the audit said. It found that some of those children had shortened school days because they were arriving late to school, and some children, including preschoolers, were on routes that ran as long as an hour and a half.

“They knew that was a wake-up call,” said Tawatao. “But a year went by and there was no change. Our clients gave them one more opportunity to bring polices and practices into compliance, and unfortunately nothing happened. Meanwhile we are seeing children being harmed by these policies.”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.