Three Berkeley High students have joined a class action lawsuit alleging that school district officials violated their civil rights when they expelled them without a state-mandated hearing.
The three plaintiffs are either African American or Latino, and the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last week charges that the district has “arbitrarily and discriminatorily excluded African American and Latino students” from the high school, “assigning them to substandard alternative programs.”
The lawsuit asks the district to take corrective action and to provide compensatory educational services and monetary damages to the plaintiffs.
Berkeley Unified spokesperson Mark Coplan declined to comment Thursday. Superintendent Michele Lawrence, Director of Student Services Gerald Herrick and school board members were all named as defendants in the case.
The plaintiff’s attorney, Bill Koski of the Education Law Clinic at Stanford University, believes there are as many 55 students in the district whose rights to an expulsion hearing and proper notice of a hearing were similarly violated. All three plaintiffs have been invited to re-enroll at Berkeley High, according to the pleadings in the lawsuit, but the district has refused to reform its procedures to the plaintiffs’ satisfaction.
One plaintiff, Juan Munoz, alleges that he received a 5-day suspension for an incident on Sept. 9, 2002, but was kept out of school for 30 days. He claims that after he was ordered home a second time, Herrick told him and his father that “he could not return to Berkeley High School because he wore red clothing to school.”
Munoz also says that Herrick didn’t allow him to enroll in his preferred alternative programs (one of which was the Berkeley Alternative School on Martin Luther King Jr. Way) because they were located too near Berkeley High, effectively denying him schooling from Fall 2002 though this summer.
“As a result of being excluded...Juan has fallen very far behind academically and has been overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness and rejection,” the complaint says.
Another plaintiff, Summer McNeil, alleges that after being denied entry to Berkeley High after a suspension last fall, she wasn’t offered any educational services until May, when the district offered to enroll her in “Home Hospital Instruction.” The program is intended for students suffering from a “temporary disability,” yet McNeil “was neither ill nor incapacitated,” the complaint says.
Suspension and expulsion data for Berkeley High is left blank on the school’s California State Accountability Report Card in 2002 and 2003, which is found on the district’s website.
Koski said reports presented to him show that the number of expulsions recorded at Berkeley High has dropped in recent years, a sign, he believes, that the district has begun denying more students a formal hearing.
Laura Menard, a member of the High School Safety Committee, said that she found it hard to believe that the high school, which she thinks has a reputation of shying away from discipline, would flagrantly break state law. “I’ve heard frustration from deans about how long it took to process expulsions because Herrick insisted on following proper procedure,” she said.
The district can legally avert expulsion hearings through a process called a “stipulated expulsion” whereby the student, guardian and district official all sign an agreement to enroll the student in an alternative school. Koski said none of the three plaintiffs signed a stipulated agreement.
The case emerged, he said, when the families of students brought their complaints to the Legal Services for Children in San Francisco, which then contacted his office about half-a-year ago.
Koski said he is contact with other families and is seeking to have the case certified as a class action so other students not listed as plaintiffs would be eligible for relief if the case is successful.
Before his affiliation with Stanford, Koski successfully sued the East Palo Alto Ravenswood City Unified School District for failing to implement state special education guidelines and at one point sought to place the district under judicial receivership when district officials failed to implement the corrective action plan effectively.
The settlement in that case, ultimately carried out by a new school board and superintendent, included compensatory educational programs, but not monetary damages for the plaintiffs.