ACLU sues School District over alleged inadequacies
on September 3, 2012
The West Contra Costa Unified School District’s Community Day School Program will start school in a new location at the Richmond Police Activities League this fall, a little more than a month after an ACLU-led lawsuit challenged the District’s funding and handling of the school. But the move didn’t placate critics, who argue the District has utterly neglected its CDSP.
The Northern California chapter of the civil liberties group and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights filed a lawsuit July 2 on behalf of two taxpayers, saying the School District was not complying with state educational codes regarding school budgets, required services, staffing, and instructional materials. The original suit called the school’s previous site in the Iron Triangle a hazard; following the District’s decision to switch sites, the ACLU and LCCR amended their complaint to allege that the District had illegally moved the school without a board meeting or public notice.
Because the suit is still pending, the WCCUSD would not comment, said Marin Trujillo, the District’s community engagement coordinator.
Students who attend community day schools have been expelled—not just from a school, but from the entire school district—for gang-related activities or violence, and many have been involved in the county’s juvenile justice centers, for a variety of reasons. Some students wear ankle monitors, said WCCUSD CDSP teacher Jerry Belleto, who filed a formal complaint with the district earlier this year that led in part to the lawsuit.
“Our kids are not stupid,” Belleto said. “They are disenchanted, in gangs, and all kinds of stuff. But they are kids with brains in their head.”
Community day schools were designed by the state to help provide a better learning environment. The lawsuit contrasts the state Supreme Court’s emphasis on education and the WCCUSD’s mission statement with what it calls such “woeful” neglect that “students within the District eligible for this specialized level of educational instruction, who are among the most vulnerable in the District, are denied their fundamental right to an education.”
The previous location of the school—which was near Gompers Continuation High School—was one of the clearest violations of the state’s school standards, lawyers representing the case against the district said. Community day schools are not legally allowed to be near other schools, said Oren Sellstrom, the LCCR legal director. Since there were no bathrooms in the trailers, Belleto said, he had to escort the students to the bathroom at Gompers Continuation High School since the students couldn’t legally walk onto the other campus alone.
“The teaching conditions were an atrocity,” Sellstrom said. “[The CDSP] was just a place that shows the students exactly what the district thinks of them.”
Belleto said he feels like a visitor in the new PAL location, but is happy that he has some access to a gym and computer lab. But even in a different space, with some amenities, the students need additional help, he said. The budget for a school catering to troubled youth is required by state law to include additional funds for resources like anger management classes and job placement counselors. To pay for the extra services, the state Board of Education gives the district extra money for every student enrolled in the CDSP. But according to the lawsuit the district has either not received or not provided that money to the program for years.
“The kids were supposed to have additional resources so that they have individualized attention,” Sellstrom said.
Instead, Belleto said that he and his former teaching partner cobbled together teaching materials and begged specialists to visit the classroom pro bono.
After several attempts to talk to the district about the lack of funding, and after feeling like his work orders to fix the old building weren’t considered a high priority, Belleto filed a Williams Complaint, which is a process for educators to formally file complaints about insufficient materials and unsafe or unhealthy facilities.
The LCCR had already been fielding complaints and phone calls for several months from various concerned residents and educators, Sellstrom said. Shortly after Belleto filed the Williams complaint, the ACLU picked up the case.
The ACLU and the LCCR asked the district to fix the problems on its own, but as the new school year approached, Sellstrom said it appeared that many of the problems were still being ignored.
The suit asks the district to start appropriately funding the CDSP, and to return any money it received from the state for the CDSP that was not actually spent on the day school program.
Even though the district has moved the school for the year, it still hasn’t addressed the budget or teaching concerns, Sellstrom said.
“They need to put resources into the school to fix the problem, not just the Band-Aid approach they have been using so far,” Sellstrom said. “The school has been essentially abandoned by the District.”
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