In early March, Skyline High School and the Oakland Unified School District resolved a complaint filed by the high school’s Black Student Union nearly a year ago. The resolution could change how students file complaints, allow random audits of students’ class schedules, offer training for teachers on how to deal with complaints of racial discrimination, and require the school to provide annual logs of complaints to the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
According to a statement from the San Francisco-based law office that represented Skyline’s Black Student Union, four African American students asserted that members of Skyline High School’s administration had racially discriminated against and verbally abused African American students, and that the school was in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits providers of programs and activities that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or nationality.
“African American students at Skyline have been targeted and harassed, subject to aggressive disciplinary policies and unequal classroom policies, prevented from taking accelerated classes, and retaliated against for challenging the discriminatory treatment,” read the statement filed by the Skyline students.
Cecilia Chen, an attorney with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, who represented the Skyline students, said the resolution “will require the School District to develop a process by which parents, students, and individuals can file complaints against the District.”
Chen also said that the resolution will “ensure students are being correctly placed into classes at Skyline.”
Skyline Assistant Principal Vinh Trinh declined to comment, instead referring all questions to OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint. Although the school district agreed to the changes, “the District did not admit any violation of state or federal law,” Flint wrote in an email.
OUSD School Board member Chris Dobbins, who represents the area including Skyline High, said that the complaints were more about personal conflicts between individual students and teachers, and didn’t rise to the level of lawsuits.
George Holland, the president of the Oakland branch of the NAACP, said he was contacted by some of the students from Skyline during the spring semester of last year, and after meeting with them several times, became aware of the severity of the situation.
“It really became a problem when we found out that students weren’t graduating due to faulty counseling and missed classes,” Holland said.
That’s when the Oakland Chapter of the NAACP contacted the Bay Area Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, Holland said.
Skyline has a well-documented history of struggles with racial discrimination. According to the law firm’s statement, in 1984 a civil rights activist and educator named Oscar Wright filed a grievance against the OUSD, alleging systematic racism and the placement of African American students into the wrong classes. In 1997, according to the statement, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that Wright’s allegations had merit, and the OUSD entered into a compliance agreement with the OCR.
But many of the grievances cited by Wright in 1984 were repeated in last year’s complaint from the Skyline students.
And it’s not the only problem the school faced: around the same time Skyline’s Black Student Union representatives were filing their complaint, the OCR launched an investigation into the disciplinary practices of the entire OUSD toward African American male students.
This investigation resulted in this past September’s voluntary resolution plan to monitor the disciplinary methods toward African American male students for 38 of the district’s schools, including Skyline.
The resolution cites the Oakland-based Urban Strategies Council and its research, which showed the disparity in disciplinary actions for students of different demographics in Oakland public schools.
Skyline, a school that has had five principals in the past seven years, is going through a major demographic shift, said school board representative Dobbins. “The demographics at the school are changing,” he said, which might start to explain some of the issues there.
“Skyline is the most diverse school in the city, top five most diverse in the state, and one of the most diverse in the country,” he said, adding that he thinks Skyline’s administration is doing “great” work with programs such as transcript review. Still, he said, the school’s administration could use some of what he called “cultural competency.”
Oakland NAACP President Holland said he had mixed views on the most recent agreement.
“I’m glad there was an outcome—I’m glad the OCR took our complaint seriously,” he said. “We hope the district does what they’ve agreed to do, because the district has a history of ignoring agreements.”