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March 16, 2021 - MoFo Diversity, MoFo Pro Bono

NAACP LDF Assistant Counsel Cara McClellan on Racially Disproportionate Discipline in Our Schools

NAACP LDF Assistant Counsel Cara McClellan on Racially Disproportionate Discipline in Our Schools  

 MoFo’s Diversity Strategy Committee recently hosted a special panel presentation to round out our celebration of Black History Month, featuring NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) Assistant Counsel Cara McClellan. Prior to joining LDF, Cara’s career path included teaching middle school with Teach America, and clerking in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In her current role, Cara has been representing Black students and parents in a number of ongoing school desegregation cases, including Thomas v. St. Martin Parish, La. School Board and the landmark Connecticut Sheff v. O’Neill case, and in the Maryland school finance lawsuit, Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education. 

San Francisco Litigation partner Josh Hill moderated the conversation which centered on the headline-grabbing I.S. v. Binghamton School District case, which is challenging the discriminatory strip search of four middle school girls with MoFo as pro bono co-counsel. In addition to Josh, other members of the MoFo team working on the matter include Litigation partner Jamie Levitt and associates Chanwoo Park and Amanda Gayer.

Filed on April 29, 2019, the complaint alleges that the intrusive strip search of four 12-year-old Black and Latina girls was racially motivated. The incident occurred at a middle school in Binghamton, New York, after the girls were seen talking and laughing in the hallway during their lunch period by the school principle and assistant principle, who described them as being “hyper and giddy.”

The school officials then escorted the girls to the health office where they directed the school nurse to conduct intrusive and demeaning searches of the girls, even instructing some of them to remove layers of clothing and physically touching their bodies. Furthermore, these searches were allowed by the school officials without ever notifying or obtaining consent from the girls’ parents. After the parent’s initial complaints, the Binghamton school district failed to rectify the situation and refused to issue an apology for the girls’ mistreatment at the hands of the school’s principal, assistant principal, and school nurse.

When speaking about why LDF took on this case, Cara noted that “it embodied a lot of patterns that we’re seeing nationally in terms of how Black and Brown students are singled out for treatment as if they are engaged in suspicious or illegal behavior, simply because they are doing things that children, or teenagers, or adolescents often do.”

According to a study, Black girls are often viewed by educators as “more suspicious, mature, provocative, and aggressive than their white peers,” and girls “as young as five were viewed by adults as less innocent than white girls,” which creates an “adultification bias” that leads to Black girls being disproportionately disciplined in schools, something the Binghamton lawsuit hopes to highlight and change.

Case Update, as of 5/13/2021:

While the race discrimination charge was initially dismissed because the court believed more recent data was needed to support it, a revised complaint, filed in January 2021, supplied current statistics demonstrating vastly disproportionate discipline of Black and Latina girls and boys when compared with white students in the Binghamton school district, and the charge of discrimination is now back in the lawsuit. The legal action, while far from complete, has already accomplished one goal: bringing attention to the often ignored issue of how girls of color are treated in public schools. It was featured in a New York Times article, “A Battle for the Souls of Black Girls,” and on an ABC News segment that aired in October 2020.

See more from Josh and Cara’s conversation in the clips below:



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