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Federal education managers are investigating Salt Lake City schools over allegations of discrimination, retaliation and unfair treatment of minority students.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah released a letter Wednesday from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, confirming the investigation into the Salt Lake City School District.
The probe comes at the request of school board member Michael Clara, who filed a complaint in June with the civil rights office.
Included in his complaint were allegations that students of color are targeted for disciplinary action and that school-based police officers are disproportionately assigned to areas with high racial diversity.
Clara said he became concerned when parents complained to him that full-time resource officers were stationed at Glendale and Northwest middle schools on the west side, but not at schools in the district's more-affluent neighborhoods.
"Out of the five junior highs," he said, "you just have them at two, and they happen to be the ones with 80 percent racial and ethnic minority [students]."
Salt Lake City School District spokesman Jason Olsen said district administrators are working to ensure equity and welcome federal investigators' objective review of their programs.
"We are focused on providing the best education we can to the children of Salt Lake City," he said, "and invite any technical help in moving us toward this goal."
Clara, who represents Salt Lake City's more diverse west-side neighborhoods, has filed complaints in the past, some of which were dismissed by the Office for Civil Rights while others resulted in investigations.
Last spring, he accused his school board colleagues of retaliating against him by assigning an officer to intimidate him at board meetings. He responded to the perceived intimidation by dressing in a "bandito" costume at board meetings until the officer was removed.
Clara said the board's response was indicative of how students are treated in the school district, with officers called in to resolve issues only when a person of color is involved. The disparate treatment, he said, places students on a path of interaction with police that influences them into adulthood.
"In the kid's case," he said, "just regular teenage misbehavior has been criminalized by the fact that a police officer will respond to their breaking of school rules."
Nubia Pena, coordinator of the advocacy coalition Racially Just Utah, praised Clara for prompting a examination of the district's practices.
She said research, including recent reports from the University of Utah, point to a so-called "school-to-prison pipeline," in which inconsistent disciplinary actions result in students of color being arrested, expelled or referred to alternative- education programs in greater numbers than their white peers.
"It's an epidemic that is impacting our most vulnerable youth," she said.
The federal investigation was an opportunity to build a partnership with the school district and improve efforts already underway to address inequities, Pena said. "We hope that people are eager to come to the table as much as we are."
Olsen said district managers are reviewing student discipline data with community organizations.
In addition to the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights, Clara said, he intends to push for clearer policies regarding the assignment of school-based police officers and the role they play in enforcement.
"What I'd like to see is standards developed, either at the district or the state level," he said, "and to give the officers training."
Federal reviews that find evidence of discrimination in schools traditionally result in mandated negotiations.
If remedies cannot be reached, schools districts face the potential of having federal funding withheld.