Page One

BUSD Settles Berkeley High Discrimination Expulsion Suit By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday June 07, 2005

The Berkeley Unified School District notified families last week that it has reached a settlement in the Smith v. BUSD Board of Education case, a 2004 class action suit filed on behalf of three minority Berkeley students—two African-Americans and one Latino—who claimed that their education at Berkeley High was disrupted by improper expulsions. 

The settlement, first reached in March, was ratified in federal district court last month. The district must notify all school families in preparation for a hearing to approve the agreement in July. 

While denying that the three students were improperly kept out of school, the Berkeley Unified School District agreed to a settlement in which the students—and any other African-American or Latino students who could prove that they were unlawfully excluded from the regular school program—will be reinstated to the general school population, have their student records corrected, and be given district-sponsored makeup instruction to make up for any comprehensive instruction they might have missed. 

In addition, the district must establish a plan to “reduce disproportionally the number of African-American and Latino students recommended for expulsion, formally expelled, and reassigned to alternative school programs.” 

The settlement does not require the district to make any financial compensation to the affected students. 

One of the students, Yarman Smith, claimed in the complaint that he was removed from Berkeley High School for two months between January and March of 2004 without a legally required hearing. Juan Muñoz claimed that he was excluded from the high school from the fall of 2002 through the summer of 2004 without a hearing, and Summer McNeil said she was excluded between November 2003 and the summer of 2004. 

The plaintiffs were represented by the Pillsbury Winthrop law firm of Palo Alto on a pro bono basis, as well as the nonprofit Legal Services for Children of San Francisco and the Youth and Education Law Clinic of Stanford Law School. 

The complaint alleged that each of the students was “excluded indefinitely from the district’s comprehensive educational programs and was either provided no educational services or provided substandard educational services through a county community school, continuation school or independent study.” 

While Smith was initially offered no makeup for his two lost months, the district offered to enroll Muñoz at the Rock LaFleche county non-comprehensive community school. McNeil was offered a relocation to Berkeley Alternative High School and was enrolled in an independent study program called “Home Hospital Instruction,” even though she says in her claim that she was neither ill nor incapacitated. 

Although the settlement only affects African-American and Latino students, the settlement required the district to send out notices to households with all students currently enrolled in the Berkeley public schools. 

At the time the agreement was reached, Lagertha Smith, Yarman Smith’s mother, released a statement saying, “I am very pleased with the settlement because it not only affects my son, but it will prevent other students from being mistreated in the future. Being involved in this lawsuit has given my son more self-esteem, since he was empowered to stand up for his rights.” 

Bill Koski, of the Youth and Education Law Clinic, added that “to Superintendent Michelle Lawrence’s credit, the Berkeley School District recognizes that students are entitled to due process. The agreement … shows that the district is committed to ensuring that students will no longer be wrongfully excluded from Berkeley schools.” 

The district last week sent out notices to families explaining the settlement of the expulsion discrimination case, informing Berkeley parents of their rights if they think any of their children were kept out of school based on race. 

BUSD Public Information Officer Mark Coplan said he has no idea how many students might actually be affected by the settlement. He said that the district has already received six or seven queries from parents. 

“A couple of them wanted to know ,‘Did my child do something?’” he said. “And the rest wanted to know if their child’s situation might fit into the settlement.” 

In addition to the mailed notices, the settlement requires the district to request that the Alameda County Probation Department, the Alameda County Department of Social Services, the Alameda County Juvenile Court, the Alameda County Family Court, the Berkeley Organization of Churches and Berkeley Youth Alternatives post the agreement at their headquarters or on their websites. 

A hearing will be held on July 27 at 1 p.m. in federal district court in Oakland to consider final approval of the settlement.