Yakima school district resolves US civil rights complaint

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SEATTLE (AP) — The U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday that the Yakima School District has resolved a civil rights complaint concerning its response to bullying and harassment in its public schools, but federal officials plan to keep an eye on the district to make sure things get better.

In a letter sent to Superintendent Elaine Beraza, the department's Office of Civil Rights criticized the district for not doing a good enough job of telling students and employees how to file, investigate and resolve a discrimination complaint.

The letter spends the most time on incidents of sexual harassment and reports hundreds of cases between 2011 and 2013. It criticizes the district's policy on reporting and investigating such harassment as vague, confusing and not well disseminated.

"Teachers and several principals and assistant principals expressed that they were not aware of the district's formal grievance procedures," the letter stated.

The schools offered student training on harassment and bullying, however, and when an incident was reported, schools responded by promptly disciplining the offending students.

But students interviewed by federal officials said they don't always report incidents to adults because they are afraid of being called a "snitch" and because they fear retaliation.

"The number of incidents of harassment reported during the timeframe of OCR's (Office of Civil Rights) review raises concerns about whether steps taken by the schools are reasonably calculated to prevent the harassment from recurring," the letter stated.

Federal officials said their investigation also identified 36 cases of racial harassment between 2008 and 2013, with the vast majority involving name-calling. These cases were promptly resolved with discipline of the name-callers, according to the report.

Investigators also found 17 incidents of harassment involving students with disabilities. Most of these cases involved name-calling.

Baraza said the school district has improved its prevention and response to harassment since the federal investigation began six years ago. "The YSD has always been committed to preventing and addressing harassment of all forms. Since the compliance review began, we have improved our systems, and addressed areas of concern," she said in a statement.

Federal officials will continue to monitor the district as it improves its policies and procedures concerning discrimination and harassment.

The district also needs to create a task force to work on strategies for responding to harassment, and it has been ordered to train students to recognize and report harassment.

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