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SALT LAKE CITY — Black students in Davis School District told Department of Justice investigators that they were routinely called the N-word or other racial epithets by other non-Black students, and they were told that their skin was dirty or looked like feces.
"Many Black students said the harassment was so pervasive and happened so often in front of adults that they concluded school employees condoned the behavior and believed reporting it further would be futile," according to a Department of Justice press release that revealed findings of its investigation and details of a settlement with the school district.
The press release also states that peers taunted Black students by making monkey noises at them, touching and pulling their hair without permission, repeatedly referencing slavery and lynching, and telling Black students "go pick cotton" and "you are my slave."
"Harassment related to slavery increased when schools taught the subject, which some Black students felt was not taught in a respectful or considerate manner," the press release states.
A settlement with the school district is intended to address race discrimination in Davis District schools, including "serious and widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian-American students." The department opened its investigation in July 2019 under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the press release states.
The Justice Department's two-year review focused on the years 2015-2020. It found hundreds of documented uses of the N-word, among other racial epithets, derogatory racial comments and physical assaults targeting district students at dozens of schools, the statement said.
"The department concluded that for years, Davis's ineffective response left students vulnerable to continued harassment and that students believed the district condoned the behavior. The department also found that Davis disciplined Black students more harshly than their white peers for similar behavior and that Davis denied Black students the ability to form student groups while supporting similar requests by other students," according to the press release.
Davis School District schools sponsor a variety of such groups — from Latinos in Action, a district-sponsored mentoring and community service program for Latinx students that includes a credited course, to non-curricular, school-based K-Pop Clubs for Korean music and dance enthusiasts, a letter to the district from the DOJ states.
"School and district officials offered no legal justification for denying requests from Black students to form such student groups, which would be open to all interested students. One administrator told us that she 'didn't think (such a club) was appropriate for school.'
"The same school official told a Black student that the school would only support a 'multicultural club.' District officials did not help these Black students form student groups, despite a clear and documented need to reduce the experience of racial isolation, which was compounded by the racially hostile climate in district schools," the letter said in part.
White students also called Asian American students pejorative slurs, such as "yellow" and "squinty" and told them to "Go back to China," according to a letter from the Justice Department to the school district dated Sept. 15, 2021.
"At times, the district told Black and Asian-American students not to be so sensitive or made excuses for harassing students by explaining that they were 'not trying to be racist,'" the letter states.
Black and Asian American students make up a combined 2% of the district's 72,540 students.
According to the letter, a school district may be liable for peer-on-peer harassment when its deliberate indifference makes students vulnerable to continued harassment.
The letter also notes that at some schools, white students who called Black students the N-word also wore and displayed confederate flags. "Parents and students across the district told us that these forms of harassment were so commonplace, they expected them to happen," the letter states.
In a statement, Davis School District officials said the "district takes these findings very seriously."
"They do not reflect the values of this community and the expectations of the district. The district pledges to correct these practices," the district's statement said.
It continued: "The agreement details specific steps the district will take to strengthen its procedures, training and practices for investigation and resolve allegations of racial harassment and discrimination. The district takes seriously its duty to promptly and appropriately investigate and resolve any complaints of discrimination, including harassment on the basis of race."
In a statement, assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke of the department's Civil Rights Division said, "Pervasive racial harassment and other forms of racial discrimination in public schools violate the Constitution's most basic promise of equal protection."
She continued: "This agreement will help generate the institutional change necessary to keep Black and Asian-American students safe. We look forward to Davis demonstrating to its students and school community that it will no longer tolerate racial discrimination in its schools."
The press release also announces details of a settlement between the department and the school district.
According to the agreement, Davis School District will retain a consultant to review and revise anti-discrimination policies and procedures and support the district as it undertakes significant institutional reforms.
The district also will:
- Create a new department to handle complaints of race discrimination.
- Train staff on how to identify, investigate and respond to complaints of racial harassment and discriminatory discipline practices.
- Inform students and parents of how to report harassment and discrimination.
- Create a centralized, electronic reporting system to track and manage complaints and Davis's response to complaints.
- Implement student, staff and parent training and education on identifying and preventing race discrimination, including discriminatory harassment.
- Analyze and review discipline data and amend policies to ensure nondiscriminatory enforcement of discipline policies.
- Develop a districtwide procedure to assess requests for student groups and treat such requests fairly.
"This important work begins immediately and will continue over the next several years," the school district said.
"Within the next 30 days, the district will share additional information with parents, staff and students outlining the initial steps it will take to implement the needed changes. The district is wholeheartedly committed to creating and maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all students free from harassment and discrimination," the district's statement said.