Oct 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Utah school district ignored widespread racial harassment, DOJ says

Photo of the U.S. Department of Justice building, with "Department of Justice" inscribed on the outer wall

The U.S. Department of Justice building in Washington D.C. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A Utah school district intentionally ignored racial harassment and abuse for years despite repeated complaints, the Justice Department said this week.

Why it matters: An investigation launched in 2019 revealed "persistent failures to respond to reports of race-based harassment of Black and Asian American students by district staff and other students," according to the DOJ.

Details: The review, which focused on 2015 through 2020, found hundreds of documented incidents where physical assaults and derogatory racial comments targeted students at dozens of schools in the Davis School District.

  • Black students told the DOJ that white and other non-Black students "routinely called Black students the n-word and other racial epithets, called them monkeys or apes and said that their skin was dirty or looked like feces."
    • "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.'"
  • White students also frequently called Asian American students pejorative slurs, including "yellow" and "squinty," and told them to "go back to China."

The district would tell Black and Asian American students not to be so sensitive or try to make excuses by claiming perpetrators "were not trying to be racist," the DOJ's report states.

  • Though it designated a compliance officer to probe complaints of racial harassment, the district failed to investigate or otherwise respond to complaints elevated to the officer.
  • Davis also disciplined Black students more harshly than their white peers for similar behavior, according to the DOJ.
  • Meanwhile, staff had leeway to commit "severe, pervasive and objectively offensive race-based harassment" in several schools and services.
  • Black and Asian American students each comprise roughly 1% of the approximately 73,000 students enrolled in the district.

Driving the news: The DOJ's Civil Rights Division reached a settlement with Davis this week. As part of the agreement, the district will conduct an outside review of anti-discrimination policies, create an online reporting system and establish a new department for race-based complaints, among other things.

  • Axios has reached out to the school district for comment.

What they're saying: "[F]or years, Davis’s ineffective response left students vulnerable to continued harassment and that students believed the district condoned the behavior," the report says.

  • "This agreement will help generate the institutional change necessary to keep Black and Asian-American students safe," assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division said in a statement.
  • "As the federal partners who work and live in this community, we are hopeful that this agreement is the start of a new chapter in which Black and Asian-American students will attend Davis schools without fear," added acting U.S. attorney Andrea Martinez for the District of Utah.

"The district takes these findings very seriously," Davis said in a statement to ABC News. "The district pledges to correct these practices."

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