The Kern High School District held a community forum Thursday evening on district-wide suspension and expulsion rates.

District leaders shared the data in front of a group of more than 100 people who turned out at West High School.

The suspension rate for all students during the 2019-2020 fall semester was 5.8%, which is higher than the 4.7% total during the 2018-2019 fall semester, and the 4.9% figure during the 2017-2018 fall semester.

Last semester, the suspension rate for African-Americans was double that of Hispanics and Caucasians, respectively.

In 2017, the district settled a lawsuit filed by Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance.

The organization accused KHSD schools of giving harsher punishments to African-American and Latino students, and racking up disproportionate expulsion rates in the process.

As part of the terms of the settlement, the district was required to hold six community forums — or two per school year — to provide updates on suspension and expulsion rates.

District leaders said they understand there is need for improvement, but they added the district is committed to the success and well-being of all students.

“As I read and hear about individual narratives that continue to espouse that the Kern high school district systematically endorses discriminatory practices for Black and Hispanic students, I am deeply disturbed because that is false,” said Dr. Brenda Lewis, KHSD associate superintendent of instruction. “The narrative that is not espoused enough is that every day, over 4,000 KHSD employees come to work, and give their best to service over 40,000 students,” she continued.

Before the meeting, activists with the Dolores Huerta Foundation held a march demanding the district be transparent. West High School 12th grade student Belen Delgado helped organize the march. Students of color, according to Delgado, feel isolated at school.

“Predominantly African-American and Latino students,” she said. “A lot of those students don’t feel comfortable in their classes, don’t see themselves represented in the teachers. I personally think we have a problem with racism in the Kern High School District.”

Following the march, the activists held a news conference in which they called for more diversity among faculty. District leaders said they are working to create a diverse set of teachers, noting one in every three new hires last year were people of color — higher than the national average. However, they also acknowledged there are challenges due to a teacher shortage.

Meantime, the district is set to hold its first equity summit in March to discuss how to proceed.