April 19, 2019

U.S. Department of Education opens civil rights investigation of complaint involving Valley Regional High School student

REGION 4— The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has opened an investigation of a discrimination complaint involving disciplinary actions taken against an Asian American student at Valley Regional High School last fall.

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the Department of Education, Friday confirmed the Boston, Mass. office of the department’s Office of Civil Rights has begun a formal investigation of a Dec. 15 complaint filed by Bounthanh Outama, father of Aaron Outama of Essex, a senior at Valley Regional High School. Outama, a Loatian immigrant, is questioning a 10-day suspension imposed on his son in September for using a school computer to download and print information about a September 23 rally supporting high school Principal Eric Rice, who resigned in October from a job he had held for less than three months.

Outama’s complaint contends that other “non-Asian” students involved in distributing information about the rally received much milder punishment. The complaint contends Aaron Outama “received harsh sanctions with threat of greater sanctions due to his Asian heritage.”

The complaint names Superintendent of Schools Ruth Levy, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser, acting high school Principal Kristina Martineau, and Stacey Lafferty, a Madison lawyer who was hired by the Region 4 Board of Education in November to investigate claims that school officials imposed a “gag order” on students and staff in the wake of Rice’s departure from the principal job.

Neviaser had been principal at the high school before Rice was hired last summer, and Martineau had been the assistant principal. Levy and school board members have declined to comment on the reasons for Rice’s departure, which included a $62,150 severance payment and extended health insurance coverage. Rice, a Chester resident, has never commented on the reasons for his resignation from the principal job.

The complaint also contends Aaron Outama was forced to write a letter of apology to Levy for distributing information about the rally. It also contends that language barriers prevented the Outamas from advocating for their son at the time of the discipline. Lafferty was named in the complaint because the Outamas contend her Nov. 30 report to the Region 4 Board of Education omitted details of Aaron Outama’s account of what happened at the time of the suspension, including claims that senior class officers asked him to print out the information about the Sept. 23 rally. Lafferty’s report, which was accepted by the Region 4 school board, concluded that student’s free speech rights had not been violated during the events surrounding Rice’s departure from the principal job.

Levy said Friday she was notified of the federal OCR investigation in a telephone call from the office on Jan. 25. In a written statement, Levy said the school district “takes its non-discrimination obligations seriously,” and would “cooperate fully with federal officials to investigate and resolve any complaints or concerns about discrimination.”  The statement concludes that “district administrators, employees, and members of the board of education are committed to providing an equal educational opportunity for all members of the school district community, regardless of race, national origin or any other protected classification.”

Bradshaw said the OCR investigation would focus on whether the school district subjected the student to different treatment on the basis of race, color or national origin, and whether the district “adequately communicated with the complainant in a language the complainant could understand with regard to important educational notices or other information.” He said that opening an investigation “in no way implies that OCR had made a determination on the merits of the case.”

Bradshaw said most OCR investigations are completed in about six months. The investigation could include a site visit, review of documentary evidence submitted by the parties, and interviews with the complainant, school district personnel, and any other witnesses. At the conclusion of the investigation, the office would issue a report that would either conclude there is insufficient evidence to support the complaint, or that a “preponderance of evidence” supports a conclusion that the school district violated federal anti-discrimination laws.

Bradshaw said “most complaints against public school districts are resolved through negotiation of a ‘voluntary resolution agreement’ that would be subject to monitoring by OCR. In nearly every case that is sufficient and we’re able to work with the school districts to help them meet their responsibilities under the civil rights laws,” Bradshaw said, adding  “but enforcement is an option if a district utterly refuses to work with us on a compliance issue.”