News Column

Education Dept. to Investigate Discrimination Complaints

Feb. 15, 2013

Melissa B. Taboada, Austin American-Statesman

The Bastrop, Texas, school district is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights after complaints of discrimination against Hispanic and African-American students and employees.

Federal officials are planning on on-site visit later this month after an unidentified person complained to the civil rights office that the district has practiced "class-wide discrimination in employment with regard to terminations, demotions, hiring, promotions and working conditions ... (and) against African-American and Latino students, employees and applicants."

The original complaint was filed in August 2011 and alleges several incidents occurred in which African-American and Latino students were discriminated against in comments, actions or situations by district administrators, teachers staff and other students.

In a letter sent to parents, Superintendent Steve Murray said: "We take all allegations or claims regarding discrimination against students or staff very seriously and we fully investigate such when brought to our attention in the proper or prescribed manner. ... Bastrop ISD strives to be transparent in its operations and educational activities, and we will welcome the opportunity to answer allegations regarding alleged practices or incidents where students and or staff could have been treated in a less than favorable or appropriate manner."

According to the letter, "Some of these alleged incidents have already been brought to the attention of BISD officials and have been investigated fully under provisions stated in BISD Board Policy DIA regarding claims of discrimination against students and/or staff."

According to the district's website, the policy Murray refers to has to do with freedom from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

The federal civil rights office has asked for two years worth of human resources data relative to hiring practices, among other things.

According to the federal agency's website, its mission is to "ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights."

Murray's letter wasn't specific about the incidents, but as the American-Statesman reported previously, parents had stated their concerns through marching over a Feb. 8, 2011, incident in which African-American students were singled out for a discussion about academic performance on state tests.

Bastrop Middle School administrators used the campus loudspeaker to call eighth-grade African-American students, using their first and last names, to the library.

Once there, Principal Teri Watson told the students that many of their scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills were too low. Watson said the low scores put the school at risk of not meeting state academic standards. To meet state and federal standards, schools must ensure students overall and in various subcategories, including various ethnic groups and low-income students, also meet the standards.

In 2010, the school was ranked academically acceptable by the state, meaning it met state passing standards in all subcategories.

Watson "told them that they need to pull together and help each other study to improve their schools, " Catina White-Higgins said at the time. White-Higgins' daughter was among those called to the library. Watson "had a chart to show them where their scores were low. ... (My daughter) said it made her feel like she was nothing, that she was in trouble, " White-Higgins said at the time. "It made her feel bad."

District officials at the time would not comment on what they consider to be personnel matters stemming from the incident beyond saying that "the issue has been dealt with."

The day after the incident, the principal sent a letter home to parents apologizing. The superintendent also wrote a letter to the community apologizing for the incident.

The school board later committed to updating the district diversity plan, which addresses hiring and training among other things.

Source: (c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Distributed by MCT Information Services

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