Three Deer Valley High School students who were suspended last year for their involvement in a disturbance at Gas City suspensions that were overturned on appeal have sued the Antioch Unified School District (AUSD), the city of Antioch and the Antioch Police Department.
The suit was filed by the parents of three African-American minors listed as Michael H., Nicholas P. and DeArmand E. (whose last name was disclosed as Ellis after he asked that his suspension hearing be open to the public last year).
The suit alleges that the three were racially profiled, physically attacked and unlawfully arrested by officers of the Antioch Police Department. Thereafter, in order to cover up their unlawful conduct, the officers of the Antioch Police Department conspired with (school) administrators to suspend and expel (them).
City Manager Jim Jakel defended the police, saying they acted entirely appropriately in the incident. AUSD Superintendent Deborah Sims could not be reached for comment by deadline Wednesday.
The actions leading to the litigation began in Deer Valley Plaza about a half hour after school ended on March 7, 2007.
The suit asserts that Michael, Nicholas and another African-American student identified as Victor F. were harassed by Antioch Police Officer James Vincent, who falsely accused them of blocking traffic in the Plaza. Vincent prevented them from going in to Taco Bell and walked toward Michael holding a canister of pepper spray.
Michael and Nicholas ran across the street to Gas City, chased by Vincent and Police Officer Leroy Bloxsom. The suit states that Bloxsom pepper sprayed Nicholas and Michael and slammed Michael to the ground. The incident escalated as several other students were pepper strayed, tackled and arrested.
Police Officer M. Zepeda (the lawsuit does not provide his full first name), holding a canister of pepper spray, walked toward a group of students watching the incident. DeArmand ran and was chased by Zepeda who tackled him. The arrests of DeArmand, Michael and Nicholas, along with four others, comprised a group that AUSD Board President Walter Ruehlig dubbed The Gas City Seven.
In order to cover up their misconduct, the involved police officers made numerous false statements in their incident reports, the lawsuit states. The officers contended that plaintiffs had blocked traffic, incited the crowd, that a crowd in excess of 50 chased the officers, and that the crowd encroached on the officers in an apparent attempt to free the arrestees.
The following day, DeArmand, Michael and Nicholas were suspended. This was followed by hearings to expel them for the rest of the school year and the first semester of the following school year.
The expulsion was based on violation of the state Education Code, which states that students are not allowed to cause or threaten to cause physical injury to another person, and are not allowed to disrupt school activities or otherwise willfully defy the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officers or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.
The suit claims that the district violated the students' rights during the hearings by allowing the district's chief investigator and witness during the hearings, Ron Leone, to also preside as the hearing officer and rule on the admissibility of evidence, including his own.
In addition, the students' rights were violated by not allowing their counsel to cross-examine the police officers who testified against them, although the students' witnesses were allowed to be cross-examined, according to the suit.
The district also withheld exculpatory evidence such as a cell phone video of police pepper spraying and making arrests, the suit states. And the district did not obtain the juvenile court's permission to copy and disseminate the police reports used in the hearings.
The testimony of the eyewitnesses established that plaintiffs did not physically injure, attempt to injure, or threaten to cause physical injury to any of the officers, the suit states. The eyewitness testimony further established that the incident occurred off campus, after school hours and did not involve school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.
All of the student expulsions were subsequently overturned. DeArmand's was overturned by the County Office of Education (COE), which ruled that AUSD did not have jurisdiction in the matter and did not show that he violated the education code, according to the suit.
The expulsions of Michael and Nicholas were upheld by the COE, but were subsequently overturned in Superior Court on April 18, ruling that they did not violate the education code, the suit states.
The suit alleges that what happened to these students is due to racism by school and city officials. It states that while a quarter of Deer Valley High School students are African-American, African-Americans comprised more than half of the students who were expelled from that school from 2004 to 2007.
From June of 2004 through January of 2008, 46 percent of the people (and 60 percent of the juveniles) arrested by Antioch for delaying or obstructing a police officer were African-American, it states.
The suit seeks compensation for the students who, it states, sustained pain and suffering, emotional distress, fear, humiliation, loss of security, anxiety, loss of physical liberty and loss of property interest. It also seeks punitive damages to deter future similar conduct by the school district and the city. The suit asks that the dispute be decided in a jury trial.
School Board Member Gary Agopian declined to discuss the lawsuit because it is a pending legal issue, but added, via e-mail, As I have said publicly before, however, I stand behind the decision we made as a board on this issue.
Antioch City Manager Jim Jakel defended the actions of the police officers. Our review of the incident indicates that the officers involved conducted themselves entirely appropriately, he said. Crime committed by this community's youth is a serious issue.
Jakel added that the city has been working with the school district and other organizations to help Antioch's younger people. We will continue to work to assist Antioch's youth in the future, he said.