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O.C.R. and Calif. District Settle Racial-Harassment Case

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WASHINGTON--The Education Department's office for civil rights has reached a settlement with a California school district that had been threatened with loss of its federal funds as a result of charges that a "racially hostile'' environment existed in its schools.

The Centinela Valley Union High School District, a 5,600-student district that operates three high schools in Los Angeles County, has agreed to implement a six-page "corrective-action plan,'' officials said last week.

Under the settlement, the district must develop a formal policy for handling complaints of racial harassment and disciplining offenders; assign an administrator to monitor racial issues; institute staff training; and appoint a community task force to study race relations in the district.

For the past four years, the district has been torn by a series of conflicts with racial overtones, including:

  • A power struggle between a black superintendent and a Hispanic-dominated school board elected with the backing of a predominantly white teachers' union that led to the superintendent's firing;
  • A series of alleged racial incidents, most involving black administrators and white teachers;
  • Ongoing charges of discrimination against black employees and minority students; and
  • On-campus brawls between Hispanic and black students.

More than a dozen current and former black employees have filed discrimination complaints against the district, and a group of black residents aligned with the ousted superintendent filed a complaint with the O.C.R. citing racial incidents that allegedly occurred between 1987 and 1991. (See Education Week, Feb. 17, 1993.)

The black residents also claimed that the school board ignored their requests to discuss racial tensions. The settlement requires the board to establish a formal procedure for interested parties to obtain a spot on board-meeting agendas.

'Satisfactory' Settlement

In interviews, district officials said that they did their best to investigate the incidents and that the district has no serious problem with racism.

School board members and the head of the local teachers' union also said the former superintendent, McKinley M. Nash, and several other black administrators were fired or demoted because of their performance, not because of their race.

But the district's interim superintendent did not respond formally to the O.C.R.

In January, the agency issued a "letter of finding'' concluding that district officials had done little to ameliorate a "racially hostile atmosphere,'' and that they were in violation of federal civil-rights law.

With the letter, the agency formally warned the district that its funding was in jeopardy, a move it has taken only a few times in recent years.

District officials then agreed to negotiate a settlement.

"We see nothing wrong with what's contained in the plan,'' said Joseph M. Carrillo, the current superintendent, who was hired last June. "There are elements of the plan that we embrace, and we're committed to implementing it.''

Lionel Broussard, a leader of the Committee for Racial Free Education, which filed the complaint, agreed that the settlement is "satisfactory,'' although he said he is not convinced the board will fully implement it.

Meanwhile, the district's legal problems are not over; several complaints from black employees are still pending in federal court, before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or before state officials.

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