By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent
After being ordered to comply with a judicial ruling, the Laguna Beach Unified School District has expunged the record of a high school senior disciplined for an off-campus incident with racial overtones.
Facing a contempt of court hearing, district administrators obeyed the judge’s order, issued on Thursday, Dec. 14, and purged all traces of the student’s three-day suspension from his transcripts last week, a district spokeswoman said. And while the contempt hearing scheduled for Monday, Dec. 18 was cancelled, attorneys for the school district returned to court anyway to file a new appeal of last week’s order by Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Bauer.
The disputed school record belongs to an unnamed 18-year-old called “Student Doe” in a Superior Court case filed by his parents. Student Doe was one of five Laguna teenagers involved in a racially charged episode last December.
Video evidence shows the five boys purchasing a watermelon on Dec. 27, 2016, according to court filings. Racial slurs were used when the watermelon was thrown at the home of a black LBHS student, Vasco Possley. Laguna Beach police investigated the incident as a possible hate crime. LBHS Assistant Principal Robert Billinger also conducted his own interviews and investigation and Student Doe was suspended for three days, court records show.
According to Santa Ana attorney Mark Rosen, Student Doe’s parents found the school’s reaction unjustified and potentially damaging to their son’s future. Unable to persuade the school to alter its decision, they filed a lawsuit against LBUSD on May 2. During the trial, Rosen argued that colleges would be prejudiced against Student Doe if his school record showed a suspension.
On Oct. 6, Bauer ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the district to remove official documentation of Student Doe’s discipline. Bauer’s order said it was an undisputed fact that Student Doe was involved in the watermelon incident and that “one or more of them yelled foul and racially insensitive words at that house, using Vasco’s name.”
However, the judge questioned the school’s authority to discipline Student Doe because the activity did not occur on school grounds and there was no evidence that Student Doe threw the watermelon. Bauer’s Oct. 19 judgment again ordered that Student Doe’s suspension be reversed and his record expunged.
District administrators did not comply with the judgment and on Dec. 11 appealed the judgment.
An appeal serves as a temporary stay of judgment unless the stay would cause harm. The Doe family asked the court to enforce the October order and clear their son’s record before the January deadline for private college applications. In the motion, Rosen wrote that Student Doe would “suffer irreparable harm” under the stay. Bauer agreed.
District spokeswoman Leisa Winston explained that LBUSD’s legal action “seeks to reinforce the District’s duty to protect the right of students to a school experience free of harassment and intimidation, in addition to its ability to justify and even require temporarily removing from campus those who have impacted that right.”