Families file federal civil rights complaint against Wilder School District

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This article was published on the Idaho Press by Sami Edge and Nicole Foy on February 1, 2021.

Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on Jan. 28, 2021

An anonymous group of Wilder School District patrons filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights on Thursday, alleging the district discriminated against students learning English and students with disabilities. 

Wilder School District is a small, majority-Latino district on the Idaho-Oregon border. Roughly a third of its students are English language learners, according to Idaho State Department of Education data, and 15% of students have a disability. 

Wilder Superintendent Jeff Dillon moved the district to a personalized learning system, which relies heavily on technology and self-directed learning. The program received national attention in November 2018, when Ivanka Trump and Apple CEO Tim Cook visited the district and praised the program.

But parents of former students, a former teacher and one current student allege that system, and the district’s policies, created “significant obstacles to learning” for English learners and students with disabilities, and that when they raised those concerns with Dillon he retaliated against them.

“The reality was that many students were falling behind, were failing classes, and were in danger of not graduating due to problems in the program,” Wilder parent E.G. wrote in a statement included in the complaint. 

An attorney from Idaho Legal Aid Services, which is representing the group, provided the complaint to reporters. Complainants’ full names were redacted. 

In an email to reporters, Dillon said the district and board of trustees “disagree entirely with the claims.” He said the district’s federal programs are periodically audited by the State Department of Education and have been continually found in compliance.

“Over the past six years we have strived to provide a learning system to support every child individually, no matter their ability, which includes language needs,” Dillon wrote.

The complaint alleges that Wilder had no formal system to identify English language learner (ELL) students, and when students were identified they did not receive adequate instruction. A former teacher wrote that in 2018 the district tested students with Latino surnames for English proficiency, put English speakers in the ELL program and did not test numerous students for whom English was a second language. Middle and high school students assigned to ELL services “were not given an actual ELL program,” the teacher wrote, but instead asked to use an Imagine Learning application designed for students in grades K-6. The district asked non-certified ELL teachers to supervise and monitor the progress of the students, according to the complaint. 

The group also alleges that since the 2017-2018 school year, the Wilder district has not been compliant with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The district has “been providing no specialized intervention” for students with disabilities, the complaint says. Many of these students are unable to teach themselves on iPads, the complaint argues, but the district has not provided the individualized assistance they need to learn.

Parents and former staff allege a culture of fear for anyone who raised concerns about how the school district was run. One parent said Dillon publicly labeled parents and staff as “troublemakers.” A teacher said they withheld names of parents who emailed them concerns because of fears Dillon would retaliate against parents.

At one point, frustrated school district residents sent their concerns to the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra. As confirmed in a 2018 Idaho Press report, Ybarra — who was running against Dillon for the state Superintendent’s seat at the time — cited local control and sent all the complaints back to the district. Parents say this exposed the families that lodged complaints. 

“Dr. Dillon then used information he learned from our complaint to retaliate against the parents who had complained by treating them and their children badly,” C.D. alleged in a statement. “Elementary students had their recess taken away. Middle and high school students had privileges revoked. … Dr. Dillon threatened expulsion of students and deportation of immigrant parents.”

Idaho Legal Aid Services filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on behalf of the group, and is asking the government to require Wilder to improve its programs. The parents have not filed a lawsuit in state or federal court. The DOE’s civil rights division investigates discrimination in public schools. 

Wilder is one of the Treasure Valley’s poorest school districts, and 98% of the students come from low-income families. Student performance in the district lags behind state averages: in 2019, only 20% of K-3 students scored proficient on a fall reading test, compared to 54% of students statewide. Fewer than 20% of high school students were considered proficient on a 2019 standardized math exam, and 48% considered proficient in English language arts.  

Click here to read the full complaint at idahoednews.org.