AUSD owes $520,000 of that total, which, as with the city, is coming out of a liability fund shared with other governmental agencies. There is a likelihood that the city and district’s premiums will be increasing as a result of the payout.
“It is all very distressing,” said AUSD Board President Walter Ruehlig via e-mail. “Here we are as a fiscally prudent District fighting at every turn to preserve jobs and programs and classroom size, and we end up with a settlement for a half million dollars on a ruckus – that’s not loose change. We were caught between a rock and a hard place; the legal fees were going through the roof and were only going to get worse. Economics often plays a significant hand in these things.”
City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland also cited the cost of fighting the lawsuit as the reason for the settlement. “The School District settled in the spring, leaving the City alone to fight the lawsuit,” she said via e-mail. “A business decision was recently made by the City’s joint risk pool, in consultation with the City, to settle as well, given the increasing claims for attorneys’ fees from plaintiff’s attorney.”
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).
The suit alleged that the three were racially profiled, physically attacked and unlawfully arrested by police officers who conspired with school officials to cover up the officers’ unlawful conduct by suspending and expelling the students.
The incident started about a half hour after Deer Valley High School let out on March 7, 2007. Antioch Police Officer James Vincent confronted Michael, Nicholas and another African-American student identified in the suit as Victor F., accusing them of blocking traffic in the plaza. The officer 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 also slammed Michael to the ground. Police Officer M. Zepeda (the lawsuit did 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 and tackled by Zepeda, according to the suit.
The next day, DeArmand, Michael and Nicholas were suspended, followed by expulsion for the rest of the school year and the first semester of the following school year.
The suit claimed that the district violated the students’ rights during the expulsion 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 hearing violated the students’ rights 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 student expulsions were subsequently overturned by the County Office of Education and the Superior Court, ruling that the students did not violate the education code, according to the suit.
After the expulsions were overturned, Antioch City Manager Jim Jakel defended the actions of the police officers, saying, “Our review of the incident indicates that the officers involved conducted themselves entirely appropriately. Crime committed by this community’s youth is a serious issue.”
Asked whether there was a rush to judgment against the students and whether there are any lessons to be learned in retrospect, Ruehlig said, “Only a turnip wouldn’t draw lessons from such a painful experience. We shall dissect how the case evolved. At this point I can only say that the District acted in good faith at every step, and make clear that the settlement does not amount to admission of guilt. It is clear that there are different legal opinions on a host of matters. I have my opinions and interpretations but the legal process has its own universe. The current legal system oftentimes leaves me slightly baffled and sighing.”