By Lyle Moran
Daily Journal Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2017
Working in Palo Alto, attorney Joni L. Ostler said she noticed a contrast in educational opportunities provided to children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
The associate at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati PC said all she had to do was look down the street to East Palo Alto to see the disparities between the public schools there and the vaunted Palo Alto public schools, not to mention private schools in neighboring communities.
The litigator has responded by devoting her pro bono work to addressing these inequities, which often fall along racial lines.
“There is a really bad discrepancy in this country between what white and privileged kids get, and what minority and underprivileged kids gets,” Ostler said. “There are other ways to address it besides lawsuits, but since I’m a lawyer, that is the way I can help.”
Ostler and her colleagues from Wilson Sonsini played a significant role in helping plaintiffs achieve a landmark settlement this summer with Kern High School District regarding its discipline policies and their impact on African-American and Latino students.
The district acknowledged that racial minority students historically faced a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions, and it agreed to make immediate changes to its discipline practices. Sanders et al. v. Kern High School District et al., 14-CV283224 (Kern Super. Ct., filed Oct. 2014). The district stipulated it would implement mandatory training for teachers and staff, and hold two public forums a year about student behavior and school climate.
“If they do follow through, it will be a lot better for students in the high schools,” Ostler said.
The suit was filed in 2014 and cited data indicating the Kern High School District reported 2,205 expulsions in the 2009-2010 school year, the highest among California school districts.
Wilson Sonsini assisted with the motion practice that helped the case move forward. The firm fronted costs associated with the litigation and didn’t take fees as part of the settlement, Ostler said.
Plaintiffs’ co-counsel on the case included California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Equal Justice Society and Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance.
Cynthia Rice, director of litigation, advocacy and training at California Rural Legal Assistance, said what made the settlement unique was that it addressed discipline practices negatively impacting both African-American and Latino students.
“It is very unusual to have both communities come together to say, ‘This is a problem that has affected both communities and needs to be dealt with at the same time,’” Rice said.
Ostler was “a lifesaver in many respects,” including by helping manage the discovery process and ensuring all the firms involved in the case had access to pertinent information, Rice said.
It was clear Ostler was passionate about the issues evidenced by her reaction when a statistical expert provided reports about discipline practices, Rice said.
“She would have the same level of outrage as me when we saw the disparities in the expulsion and suspension referral practices,” Rice said. “It was a very positive experience to have the firm involved.”
Wilson Sonsini partner Steven Guggenheim, who is based in Palo Alto, worked on the case, too. He offered high praise for Ostler.
“From my perspective, Joni cared deeply about vindicating the rights of the students we represented,” Guggenheim wrote in an email. “She was able to turn that passion into making the legal system work for her clients. I’m proud of the work she did as an advocate, and I’m also proud of her efforts as a tireless coordinator of the other lawyers on the case both at WSGR and at our co-counsel.”
Meanwhile, claims stemming from the original lawsuit about discipline and education issues in Kern County are being pursued against the Kern County Office of Education and the California Department of Education.
A judge dismissed the claims against the California Department of Education, but the plaintiffs have appealed. Ostler said Wilson Sonsini has assisted with the appeal.
“We are still fighting,” she said.