Settlement of Lawsuit Reached
May 1, 2019 — A coalition of Latino and Black students, their parents, community groups and the Kern County Office of Education (KCOE) have reached a settlement of a lawsuit involving a dispute over the enrollment of students in KCOE-operated schools.
The lawsuit was filed in 2014 against the Kern High School District, the KCOE and the Kern County Superintendent of Schools (KCSOS), the State of California, the California Department of Education, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Plaintiffs were represented by the California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (CRLA), MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), Equal Justice Society, Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, Inc. (GBLA), and by Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, PC. The plaintiffs include families of KHSD students enrolled in KCOE schools, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, National Brotherhood Association, and Faith in Kern. The KCOE and KCSOS were represented by Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud, & Romo.
The lawsuit as originally filed included causes of action alleging the KCOE unlawfully discriminated against students of color, and those causes of action were dismissed as to KCOE by the assigned judge during the course of the litigation. The settlement resolves the remaining claims which include: challenges to expenditures of taxpayer funds, alleged violations of the statutory limitations on who may be enrolled in county community schools, alleged failure to comply with requirements related to independent study programs, and alleged failure to address educational service gaps in the countywide plan for students expelled from school districts.
The agreement, finalized on May 1, 2019, calls for enhanced communication with parents and students regarding KCOE-operated schools, enrollment options, and available instructional methods at the various school sites. The communication will be through modifications to the KCOE website, to materials distributed to students and parents, and to enrollment-related forms completed by parents, school districts, and the KCOE.
The agreement also provides for periodic internal review of data collected by KCOE, and for trainings by KCOE to its staff and to interested school district staff regarding the statutory authorizations and processes for enrollment of students in KCOE-operated schools. Under the Agreement, at school sites where there is no traditional classroom instruction option, KCOE will expand its online classroom option to include all core content areas and A-G courses. In addition, five of the student plaintiffs who were enrolled in and/or referred to KCOE-operated schools will be offered career counseling and online career development instruction in remediation for alleged educational violations.
The terms of the agreement also specify that the remaining legal theories alleged against the KCOE remain contested, there is no admission of wrongdoing by any party, and that all parties to the lawsuit agree to pay their own attorney fees and costs.
“We are pleased that we were able to work collaboratively with the plaintiffs’ representatives to resolve the few remaining issues in this lawsuit, and to agree on enhanced communication and coordination with parents, students, and school districts regarding high-quality, student-focused options we offer to students in Kern County,” said KCSOS Mary Barlow.
“We are very pleased with KCOE’s commitment to make changes we believe will have tangible positive impacts on students in Kern County through added focus on the referral to community school process, clearer information to students and parents regarding available instructional options and services, ongoing data review, and offering of services to some of the plaintiffs. We look forward to working closely with KCOE to ensure these changes are implemented,” said Plaintiffs’ lead counsel Cynthia Rice.
Frequently Asked Questions Regarding the Settlement Agreement in
Sanders et al. v. Kern High School District, et al.
What was the lawsuit about?
In October 2014, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, The National Brotherhood Association, Faith in Kern (formerly known as Faith in the Valley), and several community members/students (“Plaintiffs”) filed a lawsuit against the Kern High School District (“KHSD”), the Kern County Superintendent of Schools and Kern County Office of Education (“KCOE”), and several state education entities, primarily challenging student discipline practices in the KHSD and alleging civil rights violations related to African American and Latino students.
KHSD reached a settlement of the lawsuit in July, 2017. The state-level defendants were dismissed and the Plaintiffs have appealed that decision.
After most of the allegations against the KCSOS and the KCOE were dismissed by two Kern County Superior Court judges, the Plaintiffs and the KCSOS/KCOE reached a resolution regarding the few remaining claims.
A copy of the settlement agreement can be found HERE.
What were the few remaining claims that were settled?
The few remaining claims that were settled, after dismissal of all of the other claims, were:
- A claim that the KCOE failed to comply with state statutes and regulations related to independent study programs; and
- A claim that the KCOE failed to comply with a state statute calling for the creation and update (every three years) of a countywide plan for providing education services to all expelled students in that county. (The current countywide plan can be found HERE; and
- A claim that the KCOE enrolled some students in its community school program who were not eligible to enroll in those programs.
Didn’t the lawsuit also allege discrimination by the KCOE?
Yes, but due to the lack of any evidence or even direct allegations of discrimination by any KCOE employee against any student, two Kern County Superior Court judges dismissed all of the discrimination allegations against the KCOE. This left only the non-discrimination claims described above.
Over the course of the lawsuit the Plaintiffs amended the formal allegations three times, for a total of four different legal “pleadings,” and in the initial lawsuit and the first two amendments several discrimination claims were made against the KCOE. The third set of allegations — the Third Amended Complaint — alleged nine (9) “causes of action,” seven of them against the KCOE (among other defendants). These included four causes of action and additional general allegations of discrimination and violations of the state and federal constitutions. The KCOE filed a demurrer asking Judge Sidney Chapin to dismiss the four discrimination/constitutional causes of action, and in January, 2017, Judge Chapin agreed with the KCOE and dismissed those causes of action. At the same time, Judge Chapin granted a motion by KCOE to “strike” general discrimination allegations from the other causes of action, agreeing with the KCOE argument that “there is no allegation that any Student Plaintiff bringing the discrimination causes of action, or indeed any child of a Parent Plaintiff, has been subjected to suspension, expulsion, involuntary transfer, involuntary assignment to independent student by any KCOE employee, let alone in a manner different than other students.”
Subsequently, in January, 2018, regarding the three remaining causes of action, Judge Stephen Schuett dismissed one of the causes of action entirely and confirmed that, as to the other two, any and all discrimination allegations against the KCOE were dismissed and invalid.
Was the KCSOS or KCOE found to have violated the law?
No. As is noted above, two judges dismissed allegations that the KCOE discriminated against students and violated their rights under the state and federal constitutions. Regarding the remaining allegations, the KCOE has always maintained that they comply with state statutes and regulations related to independent study programs, comply with the mandate to create and update (every three years) a countywide plan for providing education services to expelled student, and enroll students in KCOE programs as specified in state law. Furthermore, the settlement agreement specifically states that it “is a compromise of disputed claims which are and will remain disputed, and that nothing in this Agreement shall be construed as an admission by KCOE or KCSOS of wrongdoing, non-compliance with laws or regulations, or liability.”
The KCOE has believed since the filing of the lawsuit that it was unnecessary, and are confident that KCOE would have prevailed on the few remaining issues had the lawsuit continued. The decision to settle was motivated by a desire to avoid the costs of further litigation more than any concern about an adverse finding. Continuing the litigation, even on the few remaining, narrow issues, was determined not to be the best use of scarce public funds.
What does the settlement require the KCOE to do?
In the settlement KCOE has agreed to take several actions to enhance information provided to students, parents, and school districts in the county, and to clarify KCOE program offerings and practices to those constituents. This includes modifications to enrollment forms and other written information provided to students and parents, enhancement of information regarding KCOE programs and options on the KCOE website, and creation of a handbook and voluntary training to school district and KCOE staff regarding KCOE programs and the referral/enrollment process. The settlement also provides for periodic collection and review of student enrollment and demographic data, and confirmation of online learning options at KCOE community school sites. The settlement agreement also offers limited services to some of the students involved in the lawsuit, explained further below.
Does the settlement require KCOE to change any current practices?
Aside from the services offered to some of the student Plaintiffs, no. As is explained above, the settlement is focused on enhancing and clarifying information provided and available to students, parents, school district staff, and KCOE staff regarding KCOE programs, options, and enrollment processes. The settlement does not require KCOE to change any current enrollment or instructional practice, or offer any services to students that are not available to current students.
Did the Plaintiffs receive any money in the settlement?
No. There were fourteen (14) students identified in the lawsuit, but most of them had never enrolled in or been referred to a KCOE educational program. The settlement identifies five (5) students who either enrolled in a KCOE program (2 students) or were referred to a KCOE program (3 students), and for a period of one (1) year the KCOE has agreed to offer two (2) career counseling sessions by KCOE staff and access to online career development instructional courses, which will not require any expenditure of additional funds by KCOE.
Did the Plaintiffs’ attorneys receive any money in the settlement?
No. The settlement agreement dictates that the parties bear all of their own attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses relating to the lawsuit, including attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses incurred to enforce the settlement agreement. Other than paying for its own attorneys to defend this lawsuit, the KCOE is not required to expend any additional funds in the settlement.
What law firms were involved in this lawsuit?
The Plaintiffs’ attorneys were California Rural Legal Assistance (“CRLA”), Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (“MALDEF”), Equal Justice Society, Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance (“GBLA”), and Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati. KCOE hired the law firm of Atkinson Andelson Loya Ruud & Romo to defend it in this lawsuit. The other local and state education defendants hired separate legal counsel.