Clovis Unified responds to racist allegations, stresses no tolerance policy

In light of recent allegations of racism, Clovis Unified School District has responded by stressing its no tolerance policy and evaluating its procedures for handling such matters. (Daniel Leon/Clovis Roundup)

In recent months, situations of bullying and racial slurs made by Clovis Unified students have come to light at district school board meetings.

On Jan. 17, members of the local Punjabi community, in advocating for the One and Only Academy charter school, stated bullying against their community has been an issue with many students calling those wearing religious headwear “terrorists.” And at the most recent meeting Feb. 7, a concerned parent lamented that her son and another African American student on his soccer team had been called the N-word at a recent game against another Clovis team and appallingly the student who made the slur—a team captain—had still been allowed to play and keep his captain status.

Unfortunately, according to some students at Clovis East High School, these incidences are not limited to student-on-student comments and slurs.

An incident report filed Feb. 7 by Clovis East freshman Thailia Luna accuses ag teacher Ken Dias of directing racial remarks toward her after she refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

In the report, Luna stated: “I didn’t stand up for the pledge of allegiance and Mr. Dias came up to me after the flag salute and took my phone because I was on my phone toward the end and he started yelling at me saying ‘you should be embarrassed.’ As he walked away he continued saying racial slurs, such as ‘go back to your country.’ He repeatedly told me I was a disgrace, and continuously yelled at me across the classroom from his desk. A student began to cry and asked him to stop and he told her to shut up. To defend myself I told him ‘you can’t make me stand’ but he disregarded my comment and continued lashing out at me. After he finished yelling he continued to talk about the incident with other teachers and a student.”

Chief Communication Officer Kelly Avants said she is unable to provide any details about the alleged incident since it is a confidential personnel matter, but did say this situation, as well as other racial bullying incidents involving students, are taken very seriously.

“I can assure you that it is our expectation at all times that our campuses are environments in which students and adults treat each other with mutual respect,” Avants said. “Our staff play an important role in the creation of such an environment. Any situation in which our expectations for mutual respect is not met would be cause for concern.”

Given the number of incidences coming forward, the district’s administration and board has been on the ball in terms of evaluating its discipline procedures for students and its training and hiring procedures with regards to staff.

At the Jan. 17 and Feb. 7 board meetings, administrators gave a lengthy two-part presentation about the district’s current Intercultural and Diversity Advisory Council (IDAC) that seeks to foster diversity within the district by highlighting 12 separate components: hiring, focus group achievement, the student human relations council, racial bias and discrimination prevention, staff training, increased participation of underrepresented groups, educating staff about sexual harassment and gender equality, diverse representation of parents on committees, multicultural education, acceptance of students and staff with disabilities, addressing issues involving racial and sexual harassment, and complaint handling procedures.

Superintendent Dr. Eimear O’Farrell said administrators discussed the current IDAC procedures with parents and community members and discovered it is thorough but needs to be better implemented, specifically in the areas of hiring, staff training, and complaint handling procedures.

“We are all focused on the best interests of our students,” O’Farrell said at the Feb. 7 meeting. “As we look closely at the CUSD IDAC system, I believe you will find that it is a comprehensive and well thought out system. At the conclusion of our meeting in January, we concluded that our IDAC process is thorough, comprehensive and is the right system for our schools, but we also acknowledged that there are areas of IDAC that needed to be updated to reflect the current times and areas we can more effectively implement.”

While administrators highlighted the need for more training for staff in the areas of cultural awareness and how to address incidences of bullying and harassment, arguably the biggest change administrators said was needed in the IDAC process is an updated complaint handling process so everyone knows what to do when a situation does happen.

Associate Superintendent Norm Anderson said it’s vital that incidences are not just reported, but that the district has a three-pronged approach of prevention, intervention, and post-intervention.

“In the area of prevention, our goal is to prevent negative situations from happening before they actually happen,” Anderson said. “We understand the importance of clearly educating students and staff about the need for safety and how issues of bullying and harassment directly relate to providing a safe learning environment for all students. In the area of intervention, our goal is to intervene when a negative situation occurs at the earliest possible stage of the situation, this means our students must have a method to report the situation or incident to an adult that they trust on campus, this can be an anonymous tip line like our secondary sites have, but the preferable method is an in-person method of reporting and we know this takes trust of all of our students.

“All incidences of discrimination, harassment, intimidation and racial incidents of bullying are now being reported to the office and documented. Teachers have long done a good job of handling these issues in the classroom and we still want them to address these issues, but we have to make sure it is also documented in our student information system so we can see the patterns of behavior. We understand this requires all incidences to be investigated thoroughly. Also, very important is the post-intervention. Our goal is to provide support after an incident occurs to the victim and notify parents of all students involved in the incident. This is important so victims understand we are here in the future and also so they know the inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.”

The process, of course, is not perfect as one parent reported post-presentation that her son had been called the N-word. Though the perpetrator was spoken to about the inappropriateness of the comment, she was upset that student didn’t face any harsher punishment aside from a few-game suspension that his coach, allegedly, did not follow through on.

In regards to this incident, board member Brian Heryford passionately stated that such behavior would not be tolerated.

“It’s our duty to make sure that we teach our children,” Heryford said during his board member comments. “We have ignorant children and we need to make sure that our children are taught about tolerance and you’re right about the pillars, you’re right about teaching respect and that falls on us, not the administration. I want to tell you something right now, there are accusations made about some of our employees about allowing students to play and that will cease. If I have an employee here that allows a student to make racial slurs to other students, and if they happen to be a captain and they make a slur like that, as far as I’m concerned, they will be suspended from that team. I’m only one board member, but I don’t think it’s going to take very much to get six other people to agree with me so the administration has to realize that has to stop as of tonight.”

After the IDAC presentation, board member Steven Fogg said it goes deeper than just changing behaviors—it’s changing hearts.

“I think we need to change the hearts of our leaders, our teachers and our staff,” Fogg said. “A lot of things with kids are tied to their home, but I’m aware of a situation where a parent said something insensitive and the child was brave enough to say ‘dad, that’s not cool.’ We have to help our kids be brave enough to teach things back to some older adults who grew up in a different environment. There are still those people who don’t understand diversity. We are a very diverse community and it’s just not culturally, it’s economically as well and we need to be sensitive to that. We can start that with our teaching staff and disseminate that to our students. Then, hopefully the students bring that home because that is where things really have to change.”

Though there is much the district can’t control, O’Farrell said they can control what kids are being taught at school.

“We are educators and there are certain things we can’t control but our children are with us every day so as educators we can control what it is we are teaching our kids and how we are impacting them toward having a greater understanding of cultural differences,” O’Farrell said.

In regards to the most recent incident involving a teacher at Clovis East, Avants said students have the right of free speech and are allowed to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance as Luna did and should not be reprimanded in any way for exercising that right.

“Our goal is the creation of a secure learning environment that allows students to fully engage in the educational process free from political or religious partiality,” Avants said. “If a student feels compelled to opt out of the daily patriotic observance it is his or her right to do so and a staff member should not directly interfere with the student’s exercise of free speech. Additionally, a student would not be disciplined for peacefully electing to opt out of a patriotic observance. This type of situation is very similar to our long-standing allowances for students whose religious beliefs preclude them from participating in patriotic observances.”

Teachers and other staff members, she said, were made aware of these policies and procedures earlier this year.

“Our guidance to staff related to students’ options regarding patriotic observances included an expectation that Clovis Unified educators play a critical role in the creation of welcoming learning environment in which students feel free to engage in the learning process regardless of their personal beliefs,” Avants said. “This includes avoiding the appearance of partiality toward any students, ethnic or cultural group, political or religious ideology, or race. Toward this end, staff are directed to remain neutral in their speech and behavior while representing Clovis Unified.”

Given this strict policy, the district is taking the allegations made very seriously and is currently thoroughly investigating the incident.

“In general, if we receive a report from a student, staff member, parent or community member that expresses a concern that our standard is not being met by a staff member, we will not only investigate the allegation, but we will also determine if the staff member should be placed on paid leave while the investigation takes place,” Avants said. “Investigations can take a few hours, a few days, or sometimes much longer depending on the situation. Investigations would include meeting with the family involved as well as the staff member. At the conclusion of any investigation, involved parties from all sides of the allegation are met with to review the results of the investigation.”