After a federal investigation revealed that it was punishing Black students harsher than White students for similar behavior, a California school district has pledged to reform its disciplinary practices.

The Victor Valley Union High School District in southern California’s San Bernardino County, according to officials from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, engaged in a pattern of discriminatory practices toward Black students that violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Victor Valley committed to a series of changes this school year, including cultural sensitivity training for staff, conducting school climate surveys, and hiring a director with expertise in nondiscriminatory discipline practices, in a resolution reached earlier this month between the department and the school district.

Federal education officials say they launched their investigation in 2014 after discovering higher rates of suspensions, expulsions, and other punishments in Victor Valley than in other California districts. According to the data, Black students were punished more frequently and severely than white students. The department also interviewed employees, students, and parents who claimed to have witnessed school staff unfairly targeting Black students.

For example, through a program called “Clean Sweep,” school administrators issued law enforcement citations to students, requiring them to appear in juvenile court. Witnesses claim that the program disproportionately punished Black students, according to the Office of Civil Rights. For dress code violations, “being loud,” “inappropriate behavior,” and truancy, Black students were punished more severely than White students.

The discriminatory practices, according to Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights, are “profoundly harmful” and send the message that Black students are less valued than their White classmates.

One concerning finding, according to Lhamon, was that a White student could commit the same or worse offense as a Black student and still receive a lesser punishment.

In the 2018-19 school year, for example, a Black 7th grader skipped class, but a staff member wrote the student up for creating a “hostile environment,” and he was suspended, according to Lhamon. It was that student’s first absence referral of the year.

However, a White 8th grader at the same school skipped class, was written up for truancy, and received an after-school detention, according to Lhamon. It was his fourth attendance referral that year.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), Black students face harsher discipline than White students, which can jeopardize their academic success and negatively impact their perceptions of school.

In one study, APA researchers discovered that Black students who were suspended for minor infractions had significantly lower grades than students who were not suspended.

Elvin Momon, Superintendent of the Victor Valley School District, admitted that the district’s disciplinary practices have been unfair to Black students. Momon claimed the school district had a “lack of oversight” and a “lack of accountability” before the Office of Civil Rights completed its investigation.

Momon, who retired from the district in 2014 but was reappointed superintendent in June, said he wants the district to review its hiring practices in addition to the changes outlined in the resolution. He believes that the staff should reflect the students’ racial makeup.

District enrollment for the 2020-21 school year was roughly 7% White, 17% Black, and 68% Latino. Momon stated that the staff was approximately 47% White, 26% Latino, and 13% Black.

Momon believes that cultural sensitivity training for staff, including campus security, is critical to resolving the discrimination. Before deciding on discipline, staff should consider a student’s entire profile, including their home environment, he said. And this process must be the same for all races.

Michaele Turnage Young, senior counsel for the Legal Defense Fund, said racist disciplinary practices against Black students are common across the country. In many cases, Black students are being harshly disciplined for nonviolent behavior such as disruption, disrespect or dress code violations, she said. Young said school districts need to make more efforts to clarify school policies with staff and ensure they are being consistently and fairly enforced.