Justice department chastises Utah school district for ignoring racial harassment of Black and Asian students

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Davis School District has intentionally ignored “serious and widespread” racial harassment in its schools for years — failing to respond to hundreds of reports from Black students after they have been called slaves, the N-word, and heard threats that they would be lynched, according to a jarring report from the U.S. Department of Justice.

That refusal to intervene ultimately created an atmosphere that was so oppressive that some kids of color feared coming to class, the report said. Many stopped reporting acts of discrimination, which were often witnessed by teachers who didn’t step in, they said. A few told Justice investigators they felt the district was condoning the way they were treated by taking no action.

“As a consequence of this dismissive attitude to serious racial harassment, a district-wide racially hostile environment went unabated,” the department concluded in the report released Thursday. And “the district left students of color vulnerable to continued abuse.”

The findings from the Justice Department come after two years of investigation of the predominantly white northern Utah school district, starting in July 2019.

The department does not note what prompted its audit. But in May 2019 — two months earlier — Davis School District drew national attention when the family of a biracial boy who went to school there filed a lawsuit, describing how the boy was purposefully shut in the doors of a school bus by the driver and left dangerously dangling outside as he drove forward.

The report specifically mentions that incident, saying that it was seriously mishandled by the district, which focused on protecting “certain employees from discipline” rather than worrying about the boy being endangered. The district later acknowledged it had received previous complaints about the bus driver’s discriminatory behavior that were brushed aside.

The district ultimately settled that civil rights case, paying the family $62,500 and acknowledging the “racial assault.”

Davis School District also signed a settlement last month with the Department of Justice in connection with the broader investigation into how it mistreats students of color. The details of that agreement, publicly released for the first time along with the 11-page report Thursday, show how the district will be required to address the systemic problems moving forward.

The district must create an equity department to handle complaints of racial discrimination. It will need to hire a director for that, who must be approved by the federal government. Davis is also required to train all staff on how to identify, investigate and respond to complaints of harassment. And it will educate students and parents, too, on how to prevent discrimination.

Davis will also have to start an electronic reporting system where students can report concerns and where administrators can track and respond to every complaint. That will be audited annually.

In a statement Thursday, the district responded that it “takes these findings very seriously.”

“They do not reflect the values of this community and the expectations of the district,” it said. “The district pledges to correct these practices.”

Name calling and threats

The Department of Justice is empowered to investigate public schools and colleges. But it’s rare, happening only in places where there are believed to be potential systemic and serious civil rights violations.

Discrimination described in the report on Davis School District ranges from Black students being denied permission to form clubs around their identity — while other racial and ethnic groups were allowed to, such as Latinos in Action — to administrators disciplining Black students more harshly than their white peers.

There are also reports of student-on-student harassment, as well as school employees taunting students for their skin color.

Investigators said they reviewed more than 200 reports of discrimination across Davis over a five-year period. That began in fall 2015 and ended in spring 2020. In nearly every one of those cases, the department said, the concerns of students of color who reported harassment were overlooked. That was the case, they said, even when a circumstance was corroborated by other witnesses.

Additionally, “district officials acknowledged that employees were likely aware of even more racial harassment and discrimination” than just the available files.

In one case, the issues continued even during the DOJ investigation.

The team reported interviewing one female district staff member. She said she didn’t know the proper way of referring to Black students. She pointed to a DOJ attorney, who was Black, and said they were “colored” people like him. That term is considered offensive.

That happened in the classroom, too. Students also told investigators that they were told to “go pick cotton” or threatened with lynching. A few said that if they pushed back and opposed their white peers using the N-word, they were physically assaulted.

White students, they said, also called them monkeys and apes and would mock them by making primate sounds. Many of the Black students interviewed by the DOJ said they were told by classmates that their skin was dirty or “looked like feces.” Several reported other kids touching or pulling their hair without permission.

Asian students faced this, too, the report said. They were called “yellow” or other slurs or told to “go back to China.”

Davis School District has a population of about 73,000 students, according to the latest fall headcount. Of those, 82% are white. Black and Asian students make up the smallest of the minority groups, each representing 1% of the student body.

“Some students, now in middle and high school, said they had experienced racial harassment each year since they were in kindergarten,” the DOJ report noted. “Students who attended school in other districts told us that the harassment they experienced in Davis schools was worse by far.”

Some Black students said it worsened around lessons on the Civil War because they were “not taught in a respectful or considerate manner.” They said it often got bad enough that they would skip school to avoid it.

No intervention by administrators

But teachers, the students told the DOJ, were often indifferent — and sometimes joined in the discrimination.

“Black students told the department that incidents happened frequently, at times in front of teachers and other staff, and some would not respond or intervene in any way,” the report notes.

When students of color did report to staff, they said action was rarely taken and they became discouraged. Many times, staff told the perpetrator just to not do it again — even if they had previously.

“At times, the district told Black and Asian American students not to be so sensitive or made excuses for harassing students by explaining that they were ‘not trying to be racist,’” according to the report.

One student recounted telling an administrator that he had been called the N-word, and the administrator continued to repeat it to him over and over again in their conversation.

Another student, who is Latino, said a teacher directly ridiculed him for his ethnicity and joked about him working at a taco truck, which he did not. He told the principal, who took no action.

The DOJ said reports from parents often were ignored, as well, with at least one elementary school administrator openly acknowledging that he did not respond to those types of concerns.

Another administrator told them that they felt clubs for Black students weren’t “appropriate for school.”

The department said the district never responded by training staff on how to handle those concerns. The district, it noted, has only provided one administrator training that discussed racial harassment, which was one slide on a presentation — “and that was after the investigation began.”

Statistics reviewed by the DOJ also revealed that Black kids have been disciplined more harshly than their white peers for similar infractions.

They were suspended more. And in one case, a Black student was criminally charged by a school resource officer when a white student who did the same thing — who was also the same age and had a similar history of previous misconduct — was pulled aside for a “conference” with his parents.

The district, according to the Justice Department, did not provide an explanation for the disparity. But it acknowledged it existed.

The report noted: “Put simply, the district knew it engaged in discriminatory discipline and did nothing.”

‘It is troubling’

Concerns about discrimination in Davis School District are not new.

In addition to the incident with the biracial boy being trapped in the school bus, the district faced criticism in 2019 when one of its teachers told a Catholic student to wipe off the Ash Wednesday cross from his forehead.

Also in 2019, a white student dressed as a Nazi for Halloween and marched in a school parade. The DOJ report specifically calls that out, saying “no school staff stopped him or reported his costume and behavior to school administration.” Action only came, the investigators said, when it was reported by news outlets. Then, the principal and teacher were put on leave; they were both later reinstated.

In 2012, administrators in Davis were sued for deciding to remove a book about lesbian mothers from shelves of their elementary school libraries.

The district also faced uproar last year over the mascot at Bountiful High School, which was “The Braves.” Before that was changed, students painted themselves with war paint and wore feathers. And they whooped and hollered at football games.

This year, Davis also drew attention for specifically banning Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ pride flags, among others, in its schools.

David Lovato, a former board member for the district, first raised concerns of discrimination in 2014. Lovato, who is Latino, said he was concerned about how the district treated minorities, people with disabilities and those who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mostly, he argued, those individuals were never hired and staff was mostly all white. He took his complaint to the Department of Education. When he was referred to the DOJ, Lovato did not take further action and it expired. He then lost re-election.

The school board is now entirely white. Lovato was the only member of color during his term.

“Nothing ever changes here,” he said Thursday. “The community just supports that kind of behavior.”

Lovato believes Davis and the largely white population in the larger county allow harassment and discrimination to flourish. He is worried.

Rae Duckworth, the leader of Black Lives Matter Utah, said the incidents in Davis School District illustrate to her why it’s important that K-12 schools talk to kids about inclusion and diversity.

“Because Black and Brown kids are experiencing racism,” she said. “Black and Brown teachers are experiencing racism.”

Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake chapter of the NAACP, said she also sees that.

“It makes such a hostile environment for students of color,” she said. “It is troubling when you have that large of a number of incidents.”

Williams said she has been talking to the superintendent of Davis School District — and others across Utah — in recent months to address racism in schools. “I know they’ve been trying to do some things,” she said. She urged them to act faster.

What’s next

In the DOJ settlement, Davis School District is on a timeline for when it needs to make improvements. It must hire an equity director by February, for one.

After that, it has been instructed to select 30 coordinators to work on the school level to monitor for racism, respond to it when it does happen and try to prevent it from occurring.

The district will also review its statistics around harassment on a regular basis now.

“This important work begins immediately and will continue over the next several years,” the district said in its statement. “Within the next 30 days, the district will share additional information with parents, staff, and students outlining the initial steps it will take to implement the needed changes. The district is wholeheartedly committed to creating and maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all students free from harassment and discrimination.”

Currently, four other school districts in Utah also have pending cases with the Department of Justice. Those are: Alpine, Granite, Jordan and San Juan. Davis has another case on the list, also for racial harassment, that was opened in March of this year.

Acting U.S. Attorney Andrea Martinez for Utah said in a statement Thursday: “As the federal partners who work and live in this community, we are hopeful that this agreement is the start of a new chapter in which Black and Asian American students will attend Davis schools without fear.”

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