Appellate Court Rules Students May Sue State of California

State Superintendent and the California Department of Education May Be Sued for Failing to Intervene When Districts Engage in Discriminatory Discipline Practices

A California Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that students and community organizations may sue the State of California, through the Superintendent of Public Instruction, for failing to monitor and hold school districts accountable for discriminatory suspension, expulsion or transfer practices.

The ruling by the California Court of Appeals for the Fifth Appellate District in Collins v. Torlakson (Case No. F075781), reverses a Kern County Superior Court decision dismissing the State Superintendent from a lawsuit filed in October 2014 by California Rural Legal Assistance, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, Equal Justice Society, and pro bono counsel Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati.

The plaintiffs are 14 current and former KHSD students and their parents and three nonprofit organizations: the Dolores Huerta Foundation, the National Brotherhood Association and Faith in the Valley Kern.
The lawsuit alleges that the State Superintendent and the California Department of Education (CDE) violated the California State Constitution when they failed to take action regarding Kern High School District (KHSD) suspension, expulsion and school transfer policies that discriminated against African American and Latino students.

The Court of Appeals decision rejects the Superintendent’s argument that he and the State of California have no duty to act when presented with evidence of discriminatory exclusion of students from the general education setting. The court also concluded that the State has a duty to monitor whether or not school districts are complying with federal and state anti-discrimination laws and that they may be sued when they fail to do so.  

“This is a long-needed affirmation of what we all know to be true, the State of California may not sit back and do nothing in the face of discriminatory practices by school districts that push students of color out of the classroom,” said Cynthia L. Rice, lead counsel for the Plaintiffs and Director of Litigation, Advocacy & Training for California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., “We welcome the opportunity to meet with Superintendent Thurmond to discuss how CDE will address its duty under the law.”

“The state of California has always had a moral duty and, this court ruling confirms, also a legal duty to make real the promises in both federal and state law of equal educational opportunity for all,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board, this is a critical holding for California’s public school students.”  
The goal of the lawsuit was to correct the school district’s disciplinary practices, to eliminate the disproportionate suspensions of students of color, to foster a safe environment with effective disciplinary responses, and to improve student educational access.

“The state contributes to the problem by failing to hold school districts accountable when there is clear evidence that discriminatory practices are hurting students of color. The Court of Appeal decision makes it clear that the State must discontinue its passive observance and act,” said Chris Bridges of the Equal Justice Society.  

Other school districts around the state have discipline disparities that demonstrate these discriminatory practices continue to fill the school-to-nowhere pipeline by denying students of color classroom time.

“The Court’s decision goes a long way toward protecting students from discrimination by ensuring the State of California and State Superintendent of Public Instruction cannot ignore discrimination by local school districts,” said Lyndsi Andreas of Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, Inc.

Plaintiffs and KHSD, a separate defendant in this lawsuit, reached a landmark settlement in which KHSD officials agreed to comprehensive changes to its disciplinary policies. That settlement is still in effect and a community meeting will be held on September 4, 2019 to hear from parents and students about whether the district is complying with the settlement.  

Read the full announcement here.