This past December, “Casey A.” — like most seniors — was excited to receive his diploma from the high school at Challenger Memorial Youth Center in Lancaster, California. Challenger is operated by the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) for state wards housed in its youth probation camps. However, unlike most high school graduates, Casey is illiterate and his diploma perpetrates a cruel sham. Rather than being a symbol of Casey’s accomplishments, this diploma is one of the many tools LACOE is using to absolve itself of its legal responsibility to educate and rehabilitate Casey and the other 650 youths under its care.
A class-action lawsuit filed today on behalf of those youth housed at Challenger by the ACLU Racial Justice Program, ACLU of Southern California, and other legal groups seeks to hold LACOE accountable for its total failure to provide basic educational services. The federal lawsuit (PDF), filed in Los Angeles, charges that county personnel have acted to arbitrarily deny students their right to an education and due process under the federal and state constitutions. Rather than providing students with the skills needed to operate in the workforce, the suit alleges that administrators and teachers are simply not teaching. Instead, they have removed students from class to perform custodial tasks, ignored Casey’s and others’ pleas for remedial education, and capriciously punished students with seclusion.
Challenger represents an aspect of the School-to-Prison Pipeline, a phenomenon whereby youth, particularly youth of color, are ensnared in the criminal justice system early and then deprived of the resources necessary to escape. Without positive interventions, these youth will remain trapped in the juvenile and criminal justice pipeline.
Over 50 years ago, the Supreme Court wrote in Brown v. Board of Education that “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” States have a duty to ensure that our most vulnerable children, particularly those who are directly under its care, are prepared to successfully reintegrate into the mainstream. The failure of Challenger to teach its students to read will, for the rest of their lives, impede their efforts to become productive citizens.
Among other things, the lawsuit seeks to compel the county to provide intensive reading services to current and former students at Challenger; to mandate that Challenger is held to the same educational standards and provided with the same resources as other California public schools; and to prevent officials from excluding students from classrooms without providing them with a fair opportunity to challenge the basis for their removal.
This lawsuit aims to ensure that the next set of students to graduate from Challenger will be able to read their diplomas.