By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports
Earlier this week, ACLU of Idaho released a report detailing findings after an investigation into allegations of racism against Latino students in some of Idaho’s school districts. You can read the full report here.
On this week’s Idaho Reports podcast, ACLU of Idaho’s Legal Fellow Erica Rodarte Costa joins to discuss the report’s findings and recommendations. Below, you’ll find a transcript of our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Idaho Reports reached out to the Caldwell and Nampa school districts for a response. Jessica Watts with the Caldwell School District sent the following statement:
“The Caldwell School District will continue to partner with our Police Department as we work together to keep our children, youth, and community safe. We have to be vigilant as a community to keep Caldwell a safe place for our families. We value the knowledge and understanding of our Caldwell Police Officers. Our partnership with the Caldwell Police Department leads to policies that protect all the children and youth of Caldwell. We will continue to partner with the Caldwell Police Department to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.
“Be assured, the Caldwell School District encourages students to use their voice and speak out about issues that may arise at their school. As a District, our goal is to provide a safe educational environment for all students where their voices can be heard.
“We understand that some students may be concerned with Policy 3255, Student Dress. The original policy regarding the student dress code was adopted in February 2008 in which students were required to wear uniforms.
“In 2018 and 2022, the dress code was revisited and revised (becoming Policy 3255). Even with the revisions, students are still not allowed to wear clothing affiliated with gangs as per Board Policy, which has been the case since 2008 when the dress code was adopted by the Trustees. http://go.boarddocs.com/id/csd132/Board.nsf/goto?open&id=ARTUJM73D922
“Students and staff are encouraged to email Trustees with their concerns or suggestions pertaining to the District Dress Code.”
Tyler Keefe of the Nampa School District provided the following statement:
“The recent report published by the ACLU has brought attention to the complex issue of gang activity and violence in schools. Gangs and their history of violence have posed significant challenges to our district and community for many years. However, we are determined to confront this issue head-on and are deeply committed to creating schools and a community that are free from any form of gang activity.
“Throughout the years, our district has maintained a strong and proud partnership with our local police department. Their consistent efforts and successful track record in curbing gang violence in our schools and community have been invaluable. We greatly appreciate their expertise, support, and training, which have played a crucial role in ensuring the safety of our schools—a priority that has become even more paramount in recent times.
“We want to emphasize that at no point have we endorsed or supported any practices that discriminate against any of our students. The Nampa School District continues to strive for excellent for all students, including our Hispanic and LatinX students and families. We stand committed with our community to ensure a safer future for all.”
Read: Proud to Be Brown
Melissa Davlin: Briefly, can you give us an overview of your findings?
Erica Rodarte Costa: Sure. So this research started back in September of last year, and our focus was really in response to several community concerns that we received regarding instances of racism and discrimination. We started to look into different policies that the Caldwell and Nampa school districts were implementing related to gang dress codes. So those policies are race neutral. The policies do not prohibit anything for any specific race or for any specific ethnicity.
In practice, however, we started to learn and we started to see the impact that it was having, in particular, on Latina or Latino students. Families came forward and a lot of their stories are the groundwork of our report. They started to share that the gang policies were mostly being used and implemented to target clothing and items that had really a connection to LA Culture and Latine community.
One of those items, for example, are Catholic rosaries. Some of the middle schools and high schools started to tell students that they could not wear red or blue Catholic rosaries, for example, because there were ties. They had ties allegedly to gangs or gang activity. And then we later learned that sometimes they were told, even if they weren’t those two colors, red or blue, students just couldn’t wear rosaries altogether, or they had to tuck them in under their shirt or put it in their pockets so they wouldn’t be visible.
So we started to learn about a series of clothing items like these tied to the Latino community that were prohibited. The impact we saw from data that was mostly on Latino students. And then we also drove into really more taking a step back the impact that in discipline generally students, Latino students were getting more discipline, more suspensions, more expulsions and at rates that are much higher than would be expected for their involvement at these two school districts. So that was the focus of our research and some of our findings that we had in the report.
Davlin: I want to get into some of those examples of the dress code. And I’m reading the examples that you highlighted in the report. Oversize T-shirts, flannel shirts, professional sportswear, like 49 ERs jerseys and Red Sox and Dodgers caps. Red Shirts. Or wearing a blue shirt with blue bottoms. I have to say, these are all things that my own kids have in their closets.
And, you know, to state the obvious, my white children have never been called on this. This is something that other parents noted, too, when they were relaying their stories to you, that they would be called into the office for dress code violations for their children, and they would note that white children were wearing pretty much the same things.
Rodarte Costa: That’s right. And I would want to add first that the list that we include in the report is compiled from those things that family members would tell us that their children were punished for things that were included in some of the school policies. Sometimes specific schools had more descriptive policies on what they alleged to be gang-related. And then the police department hosted gang trainings for school staff and school administrators.
And throughout these trainings, they showcased several pictures of young men and young boys, mostly wearing what they alleged to be gang clothing. So a lot of these things, like you say, some of them are pretty outrageous because some of them are items that teenagers and children just use on a day-to-day basis. But like a family member shared with us, when Latino families would point out to administrators, there is literally somebody walking by your window, a white student, two white students walking by your window, and they’re wearing the same color that you’re prohibiting my Latino child from wearing.
That’s when we saw the issue. And this administrator in specific even said, well, it’s only some students that cannot wear the color red or blue, with the implication that the student had already been called out as early as middle school for allegedly being in a gang. That was not true. But again, these labels started very early for this specific student and just kept on with him throughout the rest of his schooling.
Davlin: And some of the prohibited colors are actually school colors for the schools in question, like Nampa High School. Their school colors are red and blue, which is on the list. That creates an interesting dynamic.
Rodarte Costa: That’s right.
Davlin: Another thing that stood out to me is there are no set definitions on what constitutes gang attire. And we touched on this. Like, is the color blue inherently gang related if a Latino student is wearing that? It really seems so subjective based on what’s in the report.
Rodarte Costa: It really does. And I think that’s what lends itself to this being such a dangerous policy and such a dangerous way to implement the policy. So not only are you saying that you as a school administrator or a school police can implement a policy that’s very vague. You have broad discretion on an ongoing basis to change what is gang activity or what is gang related clothing.
And we really do see it like from the list that we provide in the report, like it can get pretty specific sometimes. A lot of the times too, we can get specific to a subculture of the Latino community. So baggy pants wearing your Nike Cortez wearing long white socks, all of these has meaning to some people in the community.
And the meaning that it’s telling to Latinos is, well, just don’t wear that school. Otherwise you’re just going to be pointed out and labeled and disciplined for at a very young age.
Davlin: What role does law enforcement have in the creation and enforcement of these policies in schools?
Rodarte Costa: We did talk to a police department, and they mentioned that they didn’t believe that they should have or role in creating policies that they have an opinion in what could be gang related clothing based on their police work with gangs and gang activity in the area. But we really do see that this is really advice that the school district takes to heart.
And the school districts just run with it, and that’s what they’re implementing for students’f discipline. For example, in middle school, we, through our public records request, found an email where the dean of students says, based on Mount Hood Police Department’s recommendation, we’re instituting a no rosaries policy.
Now, even the email says there’s been strong parent resistance to this. We don’t have in our policy handbook, the fact that we can ban rosaries. But this is a Nampa Police Department’s recommendation, and this is the way that we’re going to be implementing the policy. And that’s the way that they implemented it. And it’s just really dangerous for schools to be playing this role. And also, at times, we learned (some have) a role in interrogating students, telling them what colors their family, like, what colors does your family fly, referring to what gang are they connected with? Sometimes simply based on a student’s last name, a student’s skin color, or the student’s ethnicity.
Davlin: I think we focus a lot on these singular interactions between administrators and students or students in law enforcement. But in your report, you also touch on some of the long-term consequences of disciplinary actions. Seventy percent of dress code violations in the Caldwell School District for the time period you reported on were for Latino students 100% of gang related violations for Latino students.
And you also had documented disciplinary action against students who were still learning English or had learning disabilities. So this isn’t just about one bad interaction.
Rodarte Costa: That’s right. Several are data that show that Latino students are the ones that are most impacted by these policies. So they’re the ones that are getting the suspensions. They’re the ones that are getting the expulsions. And it really builds up your student record. And it’s sad to equate it this way, but it’s like a criminal record that you’re making while you’re in school.
If you create a bad record in one school that’s going to ultimately transfer to another school and it might prevent you from enrolling in that school, or it might even push you out to have to enroll in just not in public schools. You have to go to a charter school route or you have to go to online schooling because you just do not feel accepted and or you might just not be accepted when you try to transfer out.
So it definitely has an impact. It has an impact through informal removals as well, which are much harder to track. So if the school administrator or school staff removes the student from a classroom, places them in the office, for example, for the day because they’re wearing what they alleged to be clothing, there’s no tracking of that. There’s not going to be any data of that, but there is this class time that’s resulting for that student.
Davlin: And you have examples of that, too, in the report of at least one student who was denied a transfer within the district in a public school district because of an alleged gang related dress code violation. And one of the things that also stood out to me was in your report, you say even students who are already involved in gangs still deserve support and still need support.
We’re having this conversation as so many states are really cracking down on fentanyl trafficking, some of which is gang related. So, you know, knowing that acknowledging that that conversation is happening nationwide, what does that support look like for these students in the school districts while making sure that you’re not discriminating against them?
Rodarte Costa: I think that’s a great question. And I think the support can start very early on in. If a student is identified as a student that is at risk of being in a gang or is already involved in a gang. There can always be that conversation with the student. There can be supportive staff that try to make sure that that student can remain in school.
Once that student is pushed out of school, they’re much more likely to engage in gang activity or to engage in other type of activity because they’re ultimately trying to look for a home, they’re trying to look for mentorship. And research has shown that that is one of the reasons why students or young people join gangs. They’re trying to look for that home because they’re trying to look for somewhere where they can feel supported.
If a school as early as middle school starts to label you, starts to exclude you very early on, then you’re not going to have that support and you might be even more likely to end up in those situations. So I think the support is something that can be given in the school district and there’s a lot of things that the school districts can be doing to provide it.
Davlin: This report has been out for about 48 hours. Have you started seeing any reactions to it so far?
Rodarte Costa: So we have heard from various community members who were just thankful to be able to see their stories and thankful that this issue is getting a light to it, that we’re shining a light on these issues. Nothing in this report is a surprise, I would say, to the Latine community. These issues have been happening for such a long time.
We’ve spoken to community members who say that they went through that, and they went to high school and public schools in Idaho in the eighties and nineties, and they now have children in those same schools who are going through very similar experiences, if not worse experiences. So I don’t think anything that we included in there is a surprise.
And it also should not be a surprise to the school districts. This is all information that we engaged with them at length through public records request through those communities. And so we have received some positive feedback from community work while this is being reported on.
Davlin: What are some of the recommendations that you make in the report to help fix the alleged instances of racism?
Rodarte Costa: One of our main recommendations is to stop the implementation of these gang dress codes. We’ve seen the very negative impact that it’s had on the Latine community, and we’ve seen the ways in which it’s just been implemented to their detriment. Another one of our recommendations is to remove the types of exclusionary discipline that any suspensions or expulsions that result from dress code violations and then diverting that energy that school districts right now are using to punish and discipline students, diverting it to a more positive implementation of diverse curriculum, implementation to have more diverse staff.
From all of our community conversations, we’ve heard that diverse community liaisons, for example, or diverse staff and administrators have such a positive impact on Latino students that when they have a Latine administrator that they can look to, it’s a lot easier to deal with these issues. And a lot of the times it’s a lot easier for for communities to be heard when they have an issue like this.
We’re also trying to urge school districts and statewide leaders to be a little bit more transparent on the data that’s available around discipline. So right now, every other year, every school district has to report to the US Department of Education on a bunch of data related to discipline, whether it’s suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement and even school related arrests. What we found is that it’s pretty difficult to access that data. It took us several months of engaging in public records requests with the school districts at times that would say that certain data was going to be illegal. We’d have to go back and remind them that this data is actually things that they collect on an ongoing basis.
And we also found instances where there’s possible underreporting in some areas, for example, when it’s related to arrest or when it’s related to the actual police school, police and school, what they’re reporting. So I think it’s really important for communities to have access to this data. And in an ongoing basis and also for school districts to look at the data themselves, not only reported on an ongoing basis, but see if there’s any trends, any concerning trends like the ones that we found, and then address those trends.
Davlin: One of the issues that’s come up in online comments — even in replies to this specific report — in news coverage, in your report as something that administrators allegedly said to a student, is when a student wears something that says “Brown Pride” or “Brown and Proud,” a very common response is, well, why can’t my white student wear a white pride shirt?
And this isn’t just a one-off question. This is something that comes up repeatedly, both in school and within the community. What would you say to people who have that question?
Rodarte Costa: I think it’s a great question to have, but it might be a little bit misguided by the history behind books of the terms white pride. As we’ve seen, it has been a term that historically been used to champion white supremacy. So white supremacy over other races, over other ethnicities. On the other hand, brown pride is a term that’s been used to uplift the experiences of communities of color, including Latine communities who have undergone tremendous and historical discrimination and racism.
And this is the case that we’ve seen in Caldwell High School, for example. Students do not want to wear the term to put anybody down. They were wearing a term because they felt like they were not being represented. They felt like they wanted to showcase their community and showcase the pride that they had in being Latine. As a Latina myself, it’s a term that I use as well.
It’s a term that’s common to the community. And I think it’s a trend that’s going to continue to grow, especially as attacks on Latine students continue.
Davlin: One last question. Taking a step back from Idaho, we’re having this conversation two weeks after the US Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action. And this is a very different topic, obviously. But the plaintiffs in those cases, at least one of them, has said that they’re not planning to stop with higher education and admission and enrollment policies, that they’re going to be looking at other race-based policies in the public sphere.
Are you concerned that that is going to have a chilling effect on districts’ willingness to consider your recommendation that they go out and actively recruit Latino administrators and staff members?
Rodarte Costa: I’m not sure that this specific decision is what’s going to lead administrators to be hesitant to recruit in that way. But I think it wouldn’t surprise me to already see that hesitancy across the state, especially with efforts to like anti CRT efforts or efforts to stop discussions around race and racism in the classroom. I think throughout several of our conversations, students would say, or former students would say, I never felt comfortable, even if I went through a situation that I knew was discriminatory, I never felt comfortable bringing that up.
So I think there is already a chilling effect in some school districts across the state. What’s bringing up those issues? And I would just hope that it does not have an even larger chilling effect. This decision doesn’t have a larger chilling effect because it is very important to hire diverse leaders, to hire diverse staff, and to also support diverse youth who have an interest in education in the future.