Utah School District Ignored Racial Harassment for Years, Report Says

Black and Asian American students were often called racial slurs, while teachers and staff members ignored their complaints, the Justice Department found.


Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

A school district in Utah ignored “serious and widespread” racial harassment for years, failing to respond to complaints from Black and Asian American students who were called racial slurs and physically assaulted by their peers, according to an investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The investigation, which focused on reports from 2015 to 2020, found more than 200 examples of racial harassment in the predominantly white Davis School District north of Salt Lake City, the Justice Department said.

Black students were disciplined more harshly and frequently than white students, the investigation found, and Black students were denied opportunities to form student groups. Complaints about such treatment were frequently ignored or brushed off, leading the Justice Department to conclude that the district “was deliberately indifferent to the racially hostile climate in many of its schools.”

The report was published last week as the Justice Department announced that it had reached a settlement with the district. Under the terms of the settlement, the district agreed to create a new department to handle complaints of racial discrimination; to train its staff members to identify and respond to complaints; to teach students how to report harassment; and to offer training to students, employees and parents to help them identify and prevent racial discrimination in its schools.

“Pervasive racial harassment and other forms of racial discrimination in public schools violate the Constitution’s most basic promise of equal protection,” Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “This agreement will help generate the institutional change necessary to keep Black and Asian American students safe.”

The Davis School District, Utah’s second largest, has more than 72,000 students, only about 1 percent of whom are Black or Asian American. In a statement, it said that it “takes these findings very seriously.”

“They do not reflect the values of this community and the expectations of the district,” it said. “The district pledges to correct these practices.”

The Justice Department began investigating the district in 2019. It found that the district had records of at least 212 reports of Black students being called a racial slur across 27 of its schools.

“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,'” the department said.

In October 2019, a white elementary school student dressed up as Hitler for Halloween, giving the Nazi salute as he marched in a parade through the hallways, the department said. Staff members did not stop him or report him to the school’s administrators, the report said.

Sometimes, white students would demand that their Black peers give them permission to use racial slurs directed at Black people. When Black students resisted, they were “sometimes threatened or physically assaulted,” the department said.

The harassment would often happen in front of members of the district’s predominantly white faculty and staff, but they “would not respond or intervene in any way,” the department said.

Sometimes, Black and Asian American students were told “not to be so sensitive,” the department said. Concluding that school employees effectively condoned the behavior, some students stopped reporting harassment and began missing school because of it, according to the report.

Some former students said that racism had persisted in the district for decades.

Jacob Low, 32, and his younger brother, Randy Low, 27, who attended schools in the district in the early 2000s, said in separate interviews on Sunday that students and teachers had repeatedly harassed them for being half Japanese.

A Rise in Anti-Asian Attacks

A torrent of hate and violence against people of Asian descent around the United States began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Background: Community leaders say the bigotry was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who frequently used racist language like “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.Data: The New York Times, using media reports from across the country to capture a sense of the rising tide of anti-Asian bias, found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of race-based hate.Underreported Hate Crimes: The tally may be only a sliver of the violence and harassment given the general undercounting of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures the episodes of violence across the country that grew in number amid Mr. Trump’s comments.In New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.What Happened in Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. A Georgia prosecutor said that the Atlanta-area spa shootings were hate crimes, and that she would pursue the death penalty against the suspect, who has been charged with murder.

In high school, Jacob Low said, an English teacher taunted him in front of other students about his Japanese heritage. Their mother called administrators numerous times, he said, and told them, “You guys have a serious racism problem.”

But administrators and teachers either did not seem to know how to curb the harassment or did not care enough to try to address it, Randy Low said.

“Another student used a racial slur and was not disciplined in any way, and a classroom full of other students witnessed it,” Randy Low said. “I realized, why would I bring this up to administration, to my teachers, if the only thing they’re going to do is tell me, ‘You’re OK’?”

Tomoya Averett, 22, who graduated in 2017 from a district high school, said that a group of girls were especially brutal to her in middle school, and that they “made it a point” of calling her a racial slur nearly every day.

“I’m a human who wants to be treated like another human, and it’s sad that at that age I had to ask for respect from people who should have just given it to me,” Ms. Averett, who is Black, said in an interview on Sunday. “I have nephews and nieces who are in Davis School District, and it just breaks my heart. I’m worried about them every day.”

The acting U.S. attorney for Utah, Andrea Martinez, said in a statement that she hoped that the settlement agreement would be “the start of a new chapter in which Black and Asian American students will attend Davis schools without fear.”

Former students said they were skeptical that real change would happen soon.

“If you have poison in the district, and you do nothing about it, it’s going to remain,” Randy Low said. “So I hope it’s eye-opening to the community. But honestly, it should have been eye-opening 10 years ago.”

Leave a Reply