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Davis School District still struggles with racial harassment, says DOJ-required report

The administrative building of the Davis School District in Farmington, Utah, Aug. 20, 2022.
Jim Hill
The administrative building of the Davis School District in Farmington, Utah, Aug. 20, 2022.

Racial harassment and discrimination continue to be a problem in the Davis School District. And during the 2022-2023 school year, the district struggled to respond to reports of harassment in a timely manner.

The findings are part of an annual report required by the district’s 2021 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. After the “DOJ found severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive race-based harassment in schools across the District,” Davis agreed to an improvement plan.

The report, presented to the school board in August, evaluates the compliance with that plan and how effective those efforts have been. Last spring, the district held 26 student focus groups and surveyed parents and students.

Student experiences

In an interview with KUER, Assistant Superintendent Fidel Montero said the district has invested a lot of energy into addressing the issues brought to light by the DOJ and into the improvement plan. Actions include creating an Office of Equal Opportunity and a new system for tracking racial discrimination and harassment complaints.

However, when they heard from students last spring, Montero added, some reported not seeing a change in the climate.

“I’m not going to feel comfortable until our children tell us, ‘OK, things feel different,’” Montero said.

Davis School District Assistant Superintendent Fidel Montero.
Courtesy Davis School District
Davis School District Assistant Superintendent Fidel Montero.

In focus groups, Black students reported “routinely” being called racial slurs and some said they heard the N-word on a daily basis. In survey responses, one in five Black students reported experiencing “less respectful treatment by staff” on a daily basis. One in three Black students said they experience this at least a few times a month.

While the DOJ investigation focused on Black and Asian American students, the report also found that “Hispanic students reported feeling ‘stereotyped based on their ethnicity, language, and perceived immigration status.’”

Some parents said they pulled their kids out of Davis schools because of the routine racial harassment.

During the Aug. 22 presentation to the board, Bernard Gassaway, one of the consultants who worked on the report, said “It is a perennial educational challenge to create school environments that value diversity, equity and inclusion. However, the degree of systemic racial harassment and discrimination described by students is extraordinary.”

Michelle Smith has taught at Viewmont High School in Bountiful for 18 years and is the advisor for the school’s new Black Student Union, which started this school year. Not much has changed when comparing the experience of Black students at Viewmont today versus a couple of years ago, Smith said. However, she was not expecting major improvements in one year and feels confident in her community’s ability to change.

“I think it's going to take time. I'm not going to tell you that it's all hunky dory, it's not,” Smith said. “Do I hear horrible things in the hallways? Yeah, I do.”

Responding to reports

As a part of the settlement agreement, the district had to create a centralized reporting system to receive, track and manage all reports and have it in place by the 2022-2023 school year.

Investigations were supposed to be handled by the district’s Office of Equal Opportunity, but soon after the school year started, the office started to receive more than 100 reports each week.

“It became unfeasible for a centralized district office to go into every school and investigate every report. Consequently, many reports of harassment were referred back to the school for resolution instead of OEO resolving the issue,” the report reads.

Permission was given by the DOJ in December 2022 for the district to update its complaint process so things could go quicker. Due to such a significant backlog, the office was still behind in responding to reports for the rest of the school year.

Per the standard set by the DOJ, all complaints had to be responded to within 10 days of receipt. Instead, it took several weeks last year to finish investigating and responding to complaints.

“That was a glaring area of improvement that we recognized we needed to change and change quickly,” Montero said. “We're doing our best to do that this year.”

Because of the delay, most incidents resulted in minimal corrective action. Since some school administrators were addressing the situation rather than waiting for the office to get to it, “students were receiving inconsistent responses to instances of harassment.”

In August, Heidi Alder, special legal counsel for the district, gave the school board an example where 15 students were in a text group chat sharing messages and pictures that were “egregiously offensive” and “some of the most racist, violently racist, things that I’ve seen.”

While the incident was reported, there was a delay of several weeks and Alder said it was “difficult to go back and actually take appropriate disciplinary action.” Accordingly, the students faced the lowest level of discipline. Alder contrasted that example with students who said the N-word once and were suspended for two days.

Students’ trust in the district and the system has not been helped by delayed responses. Student focus groups said when they submitted reports, they did not think anything would be done about it. There was a common theme of students feeling “hopelessness around reporting to staff.”

The vast majority of student-on-student harassment reports were submitted by administrators and teachers. Out of 722 reports of this nature, only six students and two parents submitted reports. However, because of problems with the reporting system, the district only started collecting data last February.

Parents and students were more likely to report staff-on-student harassment.

There were significantly more reports in junior high schools than in high schools. Alder said during the August meeting that the drop may be partly due to students believing that nothing happens when they report incidents.

In order for the district to gain the trust of the community, Montero said they need to demonstrate high levels of competence. To him, that can be achieved by quicker responses and improved communication.

This school year

There are a number of things that the district will be working on this year and Montero said a big goal will be to cut down that response time.

“We've hired more staff and we really have tried to train more of our administrators so that they're part of the solution,” Montero said. “I think one of the things we learned last year is some of our processes were just too cumbersome and they would take too long.”

Over the summer, Montero said the district had a leadership conference for students of color in high school and junior high school. The goal was to empower students and help them make a connection with their school principal.

Since all of the initiatives are so new, Smith, the teacher at Viewmont, thinks it will take a couple of years to know if things are improving. But while there has not been a lot of change in her school’s climate, Smith is feeling hopeful for the future and the direction her district is headed.

This year, in addition to the Black Student Union, Smith’s school now also has an AP African American Studies class.

“Just those honest conversations. That has been helpful in my building and kind of moving the needle, even if it's incremental,” Smith said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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