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Hazleton school district defends record with Latinos in wake of voting rights lawsuit

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF

In the wake of a lawsuit alleging discrimination, the Hazleton Area School District says it has been doing the best it can to serve the area’s growing Latino student population.

“Few school districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have met the challenges of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the face of explosive student population growth and dramatic demographic shifts as well as the Hazleton Area School District,” Supt. Brian Uplinger said in a statement 

Issued on behalf of the administration and the school board, the statement is a response to a federal lawsuit filed by the UCLA Voting Rights Project on behalf of Aleida Aquino and Brendalis Lopez, two parents in the district. 

The complaint says the district’s at-large method for electing school board candidates violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Right Act and the Fourteenth Amendment by diminishing the voting power of Hazleton’s growing Hispanic community.

The suit also claims the district has failed to provide adequate language support and other culturally-competent services. It also claims school police officers disproportionately discipline Latino students. 

According to the complaint, 12,243 students attended Hazleton Area School District in the 2022- 2023 school year. Nearly 66% of the student population – 8,041 – were Hispanic and 30% were white. 

Uplinger said the district has 104 Hispanic employees, as well as 55 English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers and 20 bilingual paraprofessionals “to ensure there is a persistent pursuit of equity in educational opportunities” for 3,500 ESL students.

Uplinger also mentioned a “Newcomer Center” that serves families who recently arrived in the United States. Each school in the district has a bilingual community liaison to assist with the student online registration process.

“The members of the Board and the members of the Administration of the Hazleton Area School District understand that in the imperfect science of education more work will always remain to be done,” Uplinger said.

But the experiences shared by some members of Hazleton’s Latino community paint a different picture.

Annie Mendez, mother of four, was a parent in the district for more than 20 years and said she has “seen it all.” 

“I’ve seen the discrimination that our children have gone through, by their ethnicity, by the origin, by them being Latinos, or minorities, from hairstyling to the color of their skin, the way they behave and the way they act,” Mendez said.

She is one of many parents who have spoken out about alleged discrimination in the district. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission came to Hazleton in June to hear residents’ stories.

Francisco Torres, vice chair of the Hazleton Advisory Council of Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said many of the parents’ complaints have to do with disproportionate use of police force against Latino students and school registration  procedures that require multiple proofs of address from people who recently arrived in the country and have unstable living situations.

“One thing that I think it’s important to understand is that this is not an outside law firm that came into the area to change things,” Torres said. “This is community-driven, and it was the fact that there were so many complaints coming, not just to the PHRC, but a lot of different complaints throughout the community about the treatment of students in that district, then that’s why the different organizations took notice of what something has to be done.”

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