With the right supports, students living with emotional, behavioral and cognitive disabilities can thrive in a school setting. That’s why state and federal law requires schools to identify these students, create individualized plans for their education, and work with their families to ensure they are getting the services they need to succeed.
But in the Antelope Valley, students with disabilities—and Black and Latinx students with disabilities in particular—are systematically neglected and routinely punished and criminalized for behaviors associated with their disability.”
NLSLA joined forces with Disability Rights California to file an administrative complaint calling the district’s entire special education system “punitive, segregated, ableist, and racist.” The complaint—filed on behalf of several families and a local nonprofit organizing group—accuses the district of implementing policies that encourage staff to call the police on students, remove them from the classroom, and place them in highly restrictive settings where they are deprived of contact with nondisabled peers. The district also gives school staff discretion to recommend students for expulsion for any education code violation, including conduct as benign as profanity or “disrupting” the classroom.
“Students living with certain disabilities in the Antelope Valley are more likely to be funneled into the criminal justice system than they are to be routed to college,” said Chelsea Helena, an attorney with NLSLA. “When we looked closely at the data, it was staggering.”
The district’s suspension rate is more than twenty times that of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and its expulsion rate is nearly nineteen times the state average. Black students with disabilities are suspended at seven times the rate of white students in the district. A Black student with a disability in the Antelope Valley has one in four chance of being suspended, and almost half of the Black students who are suspended by the district are suspended multiple times. The data does not reflect the full extent of the problem, as the district classifies some expulsions as “transfers,” which they are not obligated to report to the state. These transfers move mostly Black students out of the general student population and into inadequate placements like continuation schools or independent study.
Earlier this year, NLSLA filed a complaint accusing the district of failing to account for millions of dollars earmarked for high needs students. In the 2019-2020 school year alone, more than $6.9 million intended for low-income students, English learners, and foster youth—the vast majority of whom are Black and Latinx—was left unused or was used for improper purposes, with minimal reporting and seemingly no oversight.
The latest complaint is part of NLSLA’s expanding advocacy in the Antelope Valley area, which is focused on investigating and addressing discrimination in education and housing in the area. NLSLA is leading an advocacy effort—in partnership with local families, nonprofits, organizers, and other legal services groups—to address the systemic issues that have kept Black and Latinx families from flourishing in the remote desert community.