Peoria schools failed to address racial harassment of students, federal investigation finds

A new investigation revealed that the Peoria Unified School District failed to address allegations of racial harassment against a student.
Published: Sep. 30, 2022 at 3:20 PM MST
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PEORIA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — The Peoria Unified School District failed to address allegations of racial harassment against a student, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

This stems from a complaint filed in November of 2021, claiming that the district failed to adequately respond to “student and employee racial harassment” of a Black student at Vistancia Elementary School. Initially filed with the Department of Justice, the complaint was transferred to the OCR and an investigation was opened in April.

“It was just out of control,” Diane Tarsia, a grandmother said. Tarsia said her granddaughter – Genesis Romero witnessed several incidents where students used the n-word and that she was also bullied.

“I knew they were going to be mean to me,” said Romero who is now a 6th grader at Vistancia. I cried, balling my eyes out, all the way to school, all the way home, I really, really didn’t want to go,” Romero said.

On Friday, the OCR says it determined the district did not appropriately address the harassment claims of that student and others, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Letters were sent to both the district superintendent and the principal of Vistancia Elementary. “You would think dealing with kids they would be more on top of it,” Tarcia said.

Its report pointed out specific incidents involving harassment by other students including:

  • Race-based slurs, such as the n-word
  • Mocking police killings of Black people
  • Pulling eyes back to mock Asian students
  • Mimicking “Heil Hitler” salutes
  • Drawing Swastikas on photos of students’ faces on notebooks and in a bathroom
  • Saying Black people “do not deserve to live” and “should die”
  • Saying a student’s skin looked like “burnt” food
  • Saying that a student should “go back to [their] country” and “eat dog”

The OCR says harassment by school employees involved the “repeated touching of and comments exclusively about a Black student’s hair.” The report goes on to say that “the persistent, pervasive, and severe harassment and the district’s ineffective response caused significant and enduring academic, social, and emotional harm to the student who was the subject of the OCR complaint.” The OCR says it found that a schoolwide hostile environment existed because at least a dozen other students of color at the school were likewise harassed by other students.

The district didn’t offer any kind of support or ways to remedy the situation, according to the OCR, and now a voluntary resolution agreement is in place to improve how district employees and leaders respond. These are the commitments:

  • “Providing support and remedies, where appropriate, to students who were subjected to peer harassment based on race, color, or national origin at the school.
  • Conducting a climate assessment that examines the prevalence of harassment at the school, the hostile environment created by the widespread harassment, the school’s and district’s handling of reports of harassment, and measures for reducing harassment at the school and for improving the district’s response to reports of harassment.
  • Issuing an anti-harassment statement and issuing a notice to parents about identifying and reporting harassment and about how the district is expected to respond.
  • Reviewing, revising, and disseminating policies, forms, and record-keeping procedures related to harassment based on race, color, and national origin.
  • Training staff about legal requirements under Title VI, reporting and responding to harassment, prohibited retaliation, cultural competency, and implicit bias. And,
  • Providing developmentally appropriate educational programs about how to recognize and report racial harassment for school students.”

“It is so much better, Ms. Bennett addresses things right away,” Romero said. “Its gotten a lot better since this year,” her grandmother agreed.

Tap/click here to see the entire agreement.

Friday afternoon, the school district released the following response:

In August, the OCR found that the Tempe-based Kyrene district didn’t properly respond when a middle school student was faced with repeated anti-Semitic harassment in the classroom.