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Latino students in Idaho are fed up with being associated with gangs, ACLU report shows



Dress codes that label items as “gang-related” have negative consequences for Latino students, according to a new report from the ACLU of Idaho. 

On Monday, the ACLU of Idaho released its report on racism against Latino students in schools, “Proud to be Brown: Punishing Latine Culture in Idaho.” 

In the report, the ACLU uses the term “Latine” as a non-gendered term to describe someone whose ethnicity is rooted in Latin America, similar to the term Latinx, Latino and Hispanic.

Written by Erica Rodarte, a legal fellow at ACLU Idaho, the report investigates how Idaho schools particularly the Nampa and Caldwell school districts have implemented rules that are considered discriminatory against Latino students.

“Latines in Idaho have known that school policies and culture have been hostile to Latine families for decades, and this research validates that,” Rodarte said in a press release Monday. “For years, the policies and, more informally, culture and environment from officials in Treasure Valley school districts have defaulted to labeling Latine kids as troublemakers, even when they’ve done nothing wrong.”

Rodarte said she understood the frustration from parents and students who have pushed back against schools that enabled discriminatory policies.

“I hope this report can shed light on the situation, inspire schools to examine their policies and procedures and provide validation to any Latine family that has experienced racial discrimination but felt they couldn’t do anything about it,” she said.

Jessica Watts, a spokeswoman for the Caldwell School District, said school officials want to provide a safe educational environmental for all students. Watts shared local news articles about the Caldwell Police Department’s new gang unit called Operation Safe Streets, and said policies like the dress code are intended to keep students safe in the wake of more covert gang activity in the community. She said the district works closely with the department on safety issues.

“Our partnership with the Caldwell Police Department leads to policies that protect all the children and youth of Caldwell,” Watts said in a written statement. “ 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.”

The Nampa School District could not be reached for comment.

Labeling clothing as ‘gang’ related is harmful to Latino community, report says

Rodarte began the research project in September by using public records requests to schools and police departments, while also interviewing families, students and educators to better understand the disproportion of disciplinary actions toward Latino students. 

One of the primary ways the schools showed discriminatory practices toward their Latino students was by enforcing stricter dress codes and punishing students for wearing clothing that school administrators and police departments labeled as “gang” attire, Rodarte said in the report. 

The 43-page report argues that associating clothing with gangs in schools has negative consequences on the identity and education of Latino students.

According to the report, some of the attire the Nampa and Caldwell school districts deem “gang related” include:

  • Bandanas
  • Red and blue shoelaces
  • Clothing with the number 13 or 14
  • Red and blue Catholic rosaries
  • Los Angeles Dodgers or Boston Red Sox baseball hats
  • Dallas Cowboys clothing
  • Clothing with Marilyn Monroe
  • Dickies shorts
  • Los Angeles Lakers clothing
  • La Huelga bird logo

The ACLU said all students have the right to self expression under the United States Constitution and federal civil rights laws, but schools discipline students of color for wearing clothing that expresses their racial and cultural heritage.

No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under and program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

– Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The ACLU of Idaho said it is discriminatory to apply school dress codes only to a group of students based on race, national origin or ethnicity.

The ACLU also said in the report that Idaho Latino students lack support, funding and representation in education that would help minimize discriminatory practices.

Latino students in Idaho represent nearly 20% of all K-12 student enrollment in Idaho. In the Nampa and Caldwell school districts, that number is at between 40 to 44% of enrollment, according to the report. Latino students in those districts receive twice the number of expulsions compared to white students, according to the report. 

The report also highlights how police play a role in advising and even enforcing dress codes that categorize clothing worn in Latino communities as “gang-related.” 

In the 2022 and 2023 school year, the Nampa School District, for instance, offered four “gang” training sessions to school staff related to disciplinary action, intervention techniques and identifying “gang” activities.”

In that same school year, Nampa and Caldwell school districts spent nearly $295,000 and $400,000 on police staffing.

Caldwell, Nampa school district community members speak out 

Rodarte spoke to students and the families of students in the Nampa and Caldwell school districts whose children experienced discriminatory punishment related to their appearance. 

Many of the students were interrogated about alleged gang affiliations based on their attire and style such as shaved hair lines, Dickies clothing and graphic shirts, and bandanas. 

According to the report, interrogating Latino students about their clothing, requesting they remove their clothing or suspending them alienates students from school and results in growing disciplinary records, missed classroom time and increased policing and surveillance.

One parent in the Caldwell School District, Chandra, who was only identified by her first name, told the ACLU that she spoke with a school administrator at Nampa High School who told her he associates students who wear blue or red rosaries with gangs. 

Nampa High School is not the only school that associates rosaries with gangs. According to the report, South Middle School in Nampa has a “no rosaries” policy based on a recommendation from the Nampa Police Department’s recommendation. 

In a different interview with the ACLU, former Caldwell High School student Brenda Hernandez said she lost motivation and enthusiasm to attend school after her clothing was labeled by a school administrator as “gang-related.” 

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In January, Hernandez organized a “ Brown Pride” protest after she was told to remove her hoodie because it had those words on it, the Idaho Statesman reported.

“I honestly hate going to school now,” she told the ACLU in the report. “Every time I get called down to the office, I get anxiety and think, ‘What are they going to do to me? Are they going to suspend or expel me? What if they start interrogating me?’ I still feel that constant fear, and I do not feel safe in school.”

Hernandez said she was not the only one in her family whose appearance was associated with being “gang-related.” She told the ACLU that school officials at her cousin’s middle school also called him into the office to ask about his shaved hairlines. 

One individual, Kristin, identified only by her first name, is a former student in the Treasure Valley. She now works as a community school liaison in the Caldwell School District and told the ACLU that she believes the term “Brown Pride” is an important part of the Latino community and is not associated with gangs. 

“Unfortunately, throughout the years and in different roles, including as a community member, I have witnessed, in my opinion, unnecessary dress code violations,” she said in the report. “They often surrounded Chicano culture that is perceived as gang culture, which is where those harmful labels come in.”

Chicano is a term that refers to those who identify as Mexican-American. The term became popularized during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s when Mexican-Americans fought against discrimination and advocated for more bilingual and bicultural programs in the southwest. 

“Brown Pride isn’t about gangs, for me it’s about the position I’m in and who I represent,” she said. “I’m proud of everything I’ve accomplished because while the systems worked to keep me down, I still overcame it.”



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