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July 29, 2020

Letter also Decries Treatment of a Black Teacher and Students in Greenfield Union

BAKERSFIELD — The American Civil Liberties Union Foundations of Southern and Northern California today sent a letter to the Greenfield Union School District in Bakersfield, expressing deep concern that “the district has created a hostile environment for Black students and staff in its schools by subjecting them to differential treatment and degrading, off-handed comments.”

The letter details the treatment of seventh-grade English teacher Kei Jackson, whose contract was not renewed after she filed a formal complaint alleging that the district violated staff and students’ rights to free speech and expression, and maintained a racially hostile environment.

Jackson — who taught at Ollivier Middle School — was prohibited to wear a shirt that read “Phenomenally Black” during Black History Month, even though she had previously worn a “Phenomenally Woman” shirt without problem. The letter also cites several occasions when she and students were targets of racially-insensitive comments.

In addition, the letter alleges that students at the school were told, in violation of their First Amendment rights, that they were required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. The U.S. Supreme Court has long affirmed that public school students have the right to not participate in the pledge, and federal courts have ruled that includes the right to not stand for its recitation.

The letter was signed by Abre’ Conner, staff attorney at the ACLU NorCal, and Peter J. Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU SoCal.

“In Kern County and across the Central Valley, districts continue to demonstrate how they miss the mark regarding creating a welcoming environment for Black students and teachers,” Conner said. “Greenfield Union is no different. At a time when the country is reckoning with authentically creating space for Black voices, Greenfield Union’s actions prove why dismantling systemic racism in education must be a priority.”

The incident with the “Phenomenally Black” shirt, which Jackson wore to show pride in being Black, occurred in April 2019. The teacher was reprimanded for wearing the shirt and the principal of the school asked another Black staff member if Jackson was attempting to further a “Black power” agenda.

“While working at Ollivier Middle School I experienced many forms of mistreatment and microagressions,” Jackson said. “The hostility and cultural insensitivity toward Black staff and students is deplorable. The “Phenomenally Black” shirt I wore was a positive message to show pride in my culture and the principal took that as an opportunity to reprimand me and compare it to her wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ shirt.”

Jackson was also put in the position at times of being the sole voice defending Black students in the school, as when one non-Black teacher in a meeting described the students as a group being “standoffish” and acting “too cool” to perform well in class.

District leadership ignored Jackson’s complaints about how she and Black students were being treated. Finally, on May 13, 2019, she filed a formal complaint saying the district maintained a racially hostile environment and violated staff’s and students’ rights to free speech and expression.

Shortly after filing the complaint Jackson learned that her contract would not be renewed for the next school year.

The ACLU letter asks that the district to take administrative steps toward establishing a safe, inclusive, and equitable school environment in its schools. Among the steps:

  • Publicly denounce racist actions in the schools and reaffirm a commitment to maintaining a healthy and supportive school climate.
  • Conduct race-conscious professional training concerning staff’s and students’ First Amendment rights.
  • Acknowledge that students do not need to stand or otherwise participate in the Pledge of Allegiance.
  • Establish a program of trainings in child development to foster a community of teachers and administrators who are culturally competent and sensitive.

“Although we look to education to help overcome obstacles like systemic racism, the school district seems to lack the ability to service the diverse needs of their staff, teachers, and students, said Patrick Jackson, president of the NAACP Bakersfield. “Challenging the status quo from inside out on racial biases requires the participation of district officials and school leaders which is necessary to bring about real change.”

Read the ACLU letter here: