A federal investigation finds Peoria Unified School District failed to address ongoing racial harassment of students.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced late last week the resolution of a complaint of racial harassment filed against Peoria Unified School District.
OCR determined that the district failed to address harassment of students on the basis of race, color, and national origin, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations.
The investigation found that teachers and administrators knew of the harassment. Their actions allowed it to continue on a steady basis, creating a school-level hostile environment.
Peer harassment included race-based slurs, such as targeting the n-word and “ching chong” at students, mocking police killings of Black people, pulling eyes back to mock Asian students, mimicking “Heil Hitler” salutes, drawing Swastikas on photographs of students’ faces on notebooks and in a bathroom, and saying Black people “do not deserve to live” and “should die,” a student’s skin looked like “burnt” food, and that a student should “go back to [their] country” and “eat dog.”
Harassment by employees involved repeated touching of and comments exclusively about a Black student’s hair. The persistent, pervasive, and severe harassment and the district’s ineffective response caused significant and enduring academic, social, and emotional harm to the student who was the subject of the OCR complaint. Moreover, OCR found that a schoolwide hostile environment existed because at least a dozen other students of color at the school were likewise harassed based on race, color, or national origin by numerous peers.
Although administrators and teachers at the school were aware of widespread harassment, the district repeatedly responded ineffectively, or not at all, to reported harassment, allowing the harassment to continue on a consistent basis and to create a school-level hostile environment. The district also did not offer any supports or remedies to students who were harassed. As a result of these failures,
OCR determined that the district permitted students of color to be subjected to a hostile environment based on their race, color, or national origin that was sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it interfered with – or could have reasonably interfered with – their ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s program.
The resolution agreement commits the district to take steps to ensure nondiscrimination based on race, color, and national origin in its education programs and activities.
“Every student in every school deserves to learn free from discriminatory harassment,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon. “Peoria Unified School District today commits to come into compliance with longstanding federal civil rights requirements, ensuring that district students learn without discrimination based on race or national origin.”
The district’s commitments in the voluntary resolution agreement include:
- Providing supports and remedies, where appropriate, to students who were subjected to peer harassment based on race, color, or national origin at the school.
- Conducting a climate assessment that examines the prevalence of harassment at the school, the hostile environment created by the widespread harassment, the school’s and district’s handling of reports of harassment, and measures for reducing harassment at the school and for improving the district’s response to reports of harassment.
- Issuing an anti-harassment statement and issuing a notice to parents about identifying and reporting harassment and about how the district is expected to respond.
- Reviewing, revising, and disseminating policies, forms, and record-keeping procedures related to harassment based on race, color, and national origin.
- Training staff about legal requirements under Title VI, reporting and responding to harassment, prohibited retaliation, cultural competency, and implicit bias. And,
- Providing developmentally appropriate educational programs about how to recognize and report racial harassment for school students.
Peoria Unified School District released the following statement Friday: “Our district has been cooperating with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights regarding a past complaint at Vistancia Elementary School. We are moving forward with the voluntary resolution agreement as we are confident in our new leadership to build a positive and inclusive environment for students and staff at Vistancia. Peoria Unified remains unwavering in our commitment to provide equal educational opportunities to all students and an environment that is free from harassment of any kind.”