The school system that serves most of the New Orleans suburbs is under investigation for widespread discrimination against Latino students and their families.
This week, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education announced that they will investigate additional components to an August complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) against the Jefferson Parish Public School System (JPPSS).
“We are pleased with the departments’ decision to investigate all of our concerns regarding the treatment of Latino students and their families in the Jefferson Parish School System,” said Jennifer Coco, staff attorney in the SPLC’s Louisiana office, in a statement. “The investigation is a significant step toward protecting their rights and creating a more welcoming school environment.”
The August complaint was filed on behalf of 16 Latino students and their families. It outlined how the school district “created a hostile environment by allowing employees to harass Latino students about their citizenship status.” The district, according to the complaint, failed to provide access to information about school activities to Spanish-speaking parents who spoke very little English. The complaint also cites inadequate translation and interpretation services in the district.
The school district did not return calls for this story. Superintendent James Meza said in an email statement to The Times-Picayune, "Our district serves a rich and diverse student population as we enroll students from more than 50 countries. We honor our diversity and will continue to work tirelessly to meet the needs of all our students."
Not surprising, such problems for Hispanic students in public schools are not rare.
“This is not an isolated problem,” Dr. Terry Richard, a sociology professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says. “It’s in every major school district in the country. It’s pretty much been an issue that has been ignored.”
Richard released a four-year study in September that shows Latino students face intimidation, bullying, and even violence by black students in the Little Rock school system.
For decades, the United States primarily dealt with institutional racism between whites and blacks. With the historic influx of Hispanics to this country, the problem has accelerated, especially in public schools. In most districts, there’s no real mechanism to integrate different ethnic groups.
“The U.S. school system tends to put individuals in competition and as a result it creates racism and discrimination,” Richard says. “You see students competing for dates, grades, everything. Students don’t work on a cooperative level when they are competing.”
Often, Richard says, blacks, who have long faced discrimination, don’t even recognize their actions as potentially racist.
“African Americans have become a majority in many schools as administrators, teachers and principals,” he says. “Like any majority group, they may not realize their actions are racist because they are focused on their own issues and problems.”
In other instances, both blacks and Hispanics can be a target for discrimination.
A complaint filed with the U.S. Education Department in September claimed that black and Hispanic students were disproportionately excluded from New York City’s specialized schools. The complaint focused on a Specialized High School Admissions Test – the only sole measure for admission to the schools.
Last year, SPLC filed a complaint against a North Carolina school alleging that two teachers used slurs against Latino students.
“We found in our study that teachers would tell students to ‘Go back to Mexico,’” Richard says. “Some teachers had sanctioned Latino students who were speaking Spanish. You might have a fully bilingual student who may be helping a student who couldn’t speak English. In that case, the teacher didn’t understand the situation, but again, some teachers feet uncomfortable when someone speaks Spanish.”
Richard recommends schools resist the urge for competitiveness in every aspect of classroom life. Instead, he suggests that schools redevelop classroom structure to include students helping each other.
“That builds trust and respect,” he says. “Celebrations and holidays should be multi-ethnic and multi-national. Schools should not just celebrate one group because it creates an ‘us versus them’ situation.”
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com