Pittsburg Unified denied Black, English learners & disabled students constitutional rights: lawsuit

The filing claims Black, English leaners, and disabled students were denied constitutional rights to public education.

Julian Glover Image
Friday, September 17, 2021
'They pushed me out': Pittsburg Unified sued over educational outcomes
Pittsburg Unified School District is once again under scrutiny regarding poor education outcomes for Black, English learners, and disabled students.

PITTSBURG, Calif. (KGO) -- The Pittsburg Unified School District is once again under scrutiny regarding poor education outcomes for Black, English learners, and disabled students.

The lawsuit filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court names the State Board of Education, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the State of California, and Pittsburg Unified School District.

The filing claims Black, English learners, and disabled students were denied constitutional rights to public education.

RELATED: How excessive school discipline against Black girls leads to drop out, incarceration

The ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of Southern California, and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund are representing two students, two parents of former students, and a current teacher.

ABC7 News first reported on excessive discipline practices in February, sharing the stories of one of the families represented, student Lanyiah Green and her mother Jessica Black.

"Nobody has ever taken the time to actually get to know who I am. They just pushed me out without even trying to understand me," said Green.

Green was suspended dozens of times during her time in elementary and middle school. By the seventh grade, she was forced out of traditional classrooms and into an independent education program.

The program is isolating with no interaction with other students and limited weekly instruction.

VIDEO: 18x more likely to be suspended: Bay Area schools grapple with excessive discipline

Black and Latino students face excessive discipline in Bay Area schools and are more likely to miss school because of suspensions.

The suspensions started in the third grade for typical child-like behavior with as many as 23 suspensions in one year, said Green's mother.

"My daughter, at 11-years-old, was 5150'd and sent to a mental health unit that further traumatized her," said Black.

Now Black and her daughter are one of the families being represented in the lawsuit against her former school district and state education leaders.

"We want them to completely revamp their disciplinary and special education system," said Malhar Shah, one of the attorney's working on the case on behalf of DREDF.

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The lawsuit alleges Pittsburg Unified has a discriminatory discipline system, failed to provide an equitable education to all students regardless of ability, and the district overidentifies Black & English leaners as having disabilities.

"The school district and the state are depriving students of their fundamental right to education," said Shah.

An ABC7 News data analysis from our previous reporting shows Pittsburg Unified has the highest suspension rate for Black students in the Bay Area and Black girls in the 7th and 8th grades were 14-times more likely to be suspended than white girls in that grade within the district, according to 2018-19 California Department of Education Data.

"It's the racist practices that are happening that are pushing students out," said Black.

Pittsburg Unified School District Superintendent Janet Schulze EdD provided ABC7 News the following statement in response to the lawsuit:

"Our District is dedicated to provide every scholar with equitable access to instruction, and while we have made much improvement over the years in bridging access and opportunity gaps for students, our important work continues because in our District, like so many throughout our state and nation, gaps persist.

The legal action taken by the ACLU is disappointing because fundamentally we share the same priorities, which is ensure that all children, in particular students of color, our English language learners and students with disabilities, receive a quality education. Importantly, we will not let this lawsuit distract from the significant efforts of our District and staff to continue to identify and address disparities. As attorneys attend to this situation, I am confident that the facts of the situation will set straight the many misleading comments in the ACLU statement, and I am equally confident that the dedicated professionals in our District will not let this deter them from focusing on the needs of our students, our scholars, who are everyday at the heart of their work."

RELATED: Bay Area school district grapples with learning loss among students of color, low-income households

As for Green, her mother has removed her from Pittsburg schools and sent her to live with relatives out of state in hopes of having a chance at a fair education and a brighter future.

"She deserves to have an opportunity. She deserves to be able to dream and live and fulfill those dreams," said Black.

ABC7 News reached out to the California Board of Education, California Department of Education, and State Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond for comment and a spokesman said they have yet to receive the lawsuit and that "while we cannot comment on the suit, I can say that State Superintendent Thurmond and the CDE have championed equitable access to educational resources for all students and the closing of opportunity gaps for students of color, students with disabilities, English learners and others."

The issue of excessive discipline is not limited to Pittsburg Unified Schools.

Black and Latino Bay Area area students are far more likely to face suspension and miss crucial classroom instruction when compared to their white and Asian classmates, an ABC7 News Data Team analysis found.

A Black student is 18x more likely to be suspended in San Francisco Unified.