By JOSH FRIEDMAN
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has launched an investigation into allegations that the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District discriminated against Latinos and non-English speakers, allegations the district denies.
On behalf of Paso People’s Action, the California Rural Legal Assistance and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area filed a complaint in June with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The complaint alleges the district discriminated against limited English proficient parents and community members by failing to communicate with them in Spanish at school board and advisory committee meetings.
In addition, the complaint alleges the district discriminated against Latino non-English proficient parents and community members by denying them the opportunity to become members of the 7-11 surplus property advisory committee.
In June 2020, amid budget shortfalls the district formed an advisory committee tasked with reviewing “a list of unused properties owned by the district and to make formal recommendations for their use in the future.” The committee, which was advisory only, ultimately went a step further, recommending the closure of Georgia Brown Elementary, which hosts an English-Spanish dual immersion program.
If 15 percent or more of public school students speak a primary language other than English, the school is required to send “all notices, reports, statements, or records sent to the parent or guardian” of those students in their primary language. While approximately 35% of Paso Robles students are English learners, the committee was comprised of English speaking members, leaving the question of whether an advisory committee tasked with compiling a list of unused properties was required to have bilingual correspondence.
The civil rights complaint accuses the district of discriminating against Latino and English-learner students by way of the committee’s recommendation to close Georgia Brown Elementary and for not providing information about the advisory committee in English and Spanish.
In response to the allegation, district officials announced plans to continue the Spanish-English dual immersion program, even if they have to move it to another school.
“The district has conducted a series of public, transparent reviews of the possible closure of an
elementary school and conducted significant community outreach on this topic, including
holding meetings in Spanish and providing translation services,” the district responded. “That process is still ongoing and no decisions have been made by the board nor any votes taken.”
Additionally, the complaint alleges Paso Robles school board president Chris Arend made disparaging comments during a board meeting about Spanish-speaking parents.
During a Jan. 12, 2021 meeting, some members of the public addressed the board in Spanish, even though they spoke English. Arend asked those who spoke English to address the board in English.
“Under the California Constitution, the official language of the state of California is English, and we conduct our business in English,” Arend said. “We try to accommodate speakers who do not have sufficient command of English, but I want to remind everybody out there if you have sufficient command of English, please speak in a language that we understand, that is also under the constitution the official language of the state of California.”
In March 2021, the district began providing translations of all school board meetings in Spanish, and started allowing Spanish speaking members of the public additional time for public comment, along with translation services.
In addition, the district recently went through the process of changing its method of elections to
ensure that Latino community members have the “opportunity to elect leaders they choose
and to influence the outcome of elections through the California Voting Rights Act.”
“The district welcomes the opportunity to show evidence of our compliance with applicable law
and engagement of all members of our school community in the governance of our district, the district said in a press release. “We have corrected already any deficiencies in that compliance. The district firmly denies any discrimination against Latino students or their families and has numerous initiatives to ensure participation of all members of our community.”