Laguna Schools Bow to Judicial Order on Student Discipline


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.”


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  1. To report that an appeal stays an order “unless there is harm” confuses rather than informs readers when the nature and purpose of the order is to prevent a specific known harm. The School District is not a private party. It is the state acting under state law imposing a punishment on a citizen. When the court order rules the government does not have the power to impose the punishment the government’s opinion about whether the judge is right or erong does not give the government the right or the power to disobey the order by treating its appeal as a stay. The harm is known and the fact that any of us may agree or disagree with the punishment is irrelevant. If the court is wrong that is for the appellate court to decide. The behavior being modeled by the School Bosrd to the students is that you do not need to obey the law or act in good faith if you don’t agree with your responsibilities and duties under the rules that apply to you in our social, civic and legal order. This is not civil disobedience by the Board to protect student rights generally as LBUSD statement claims, it is denial of an individual student’s right under a specific not general court order in a legal case. Whether I personally agree or do not agree with the court misses the point. It was an act of bad faith to disobey the order when it stated the government’s action would cause harm the order was issued to prevent. That means the School District Didi not have the option of treating the appeal as a stay. If it was acting in good faith it would have made a motion for the court to decide if the School District could leave the action it had taken standing pending the appeal. But the School Board thought it could get away with disobeying the order, which models bad faith and a form of cheating to students who, by the way, are watching and very aware of this case. If Dr. Culverhouse had been here she would have managed this incident in a manner that was morally cathartic and made it a meaningful and redeeming learning moment for all concerned, including the victim and the students who acted with disregard for the rights and values we uphold as a community. Instead this process has been managed negligently by adults who think it is about them. School Board members with no real and sustained experience managing race or gender relations in a public institutional setting solipsisticslly thought this was all about proving that they are on the right side of what happened. In an embarrassingly self-centered way the adults sought distance between themselves and the kids, instead of drawing all parties together in truth and reconciliation. Instead of putting the victim and the young people who made bad choices first, and showing them the path of personal responsibility and redemption, just as this Indy article persists in doing, the adults projected fear about the incident “investigated by police as a hate crime.” Even though the police never put up or shut up the fact that they were investigating was treated as guilt, so even though the incident was off campus the School Board made a political decision to assert jurisdiction. In that environment, the LBHS Principsl who already had proven multiple times uniquely incompetent, panicked and froze. So did the new Superintendent, who abdicated responsibility to the Principal! This dynamic created paralysis in the professional ranks, and the School Board was so afraid of being blamed that when it finally acted, it was both an under reaction to the need for leadership and an over reaction to the need for consequences. The Board ineptly decided the Vice Principal should take actions more punitive than consequences for other students involved in on-campus racial, gender and wealth privilege speech or conduct creating a hostile education environment on campus. As a result to this day no one knows what the true meaning of this incident and its aftermath really means morally or otherwise. The School Board has created moral confusion where we needed moral clarity. The kids understand all this better than the adults. Thist is why I say this his yet another bad civic lesson.


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