Every year, an average of 36 students at Laguna Beach High School receive suspensions for up to five days for offenses mostly involving drugs and defiance. Besides having to make up lessons from losing class time, the student also must shoulder the consequences of discipline annotated in their permanent record.
The state’s Education Code grants school superintendents and administrators the discretion to suspend or expel students for an array of misconduct taking place on campus, during the school day or at a school-sponsored activity. The code also grants pupils protections, including requiring administrators try other corrective measures, such as a meeting with parents, for a first offense. In addition, the code requires administrators hold informal hearings with students prior to suspensions, informing pupils of the reasons for the discipline and allowing pupils an opportunity to explain their actions.
Those pupil rights underpin a legal victory over the Laguna Beach Unified School District, won last year on behalf of a student whose parents sued to expunge a three-day suspension from their son’s records. Lawyers argued in Orange County Superior Court that administrators disregarded their obligation to talk to the student and his parents before imposing discipline.
The decision last Oct. 6 rested on two factors. Judge Ronald Bauer concluded that the known facts failed to justify LBHS Assistant Principal Robert Billinger’s decision to punish the pupil identified only as Student Doe in court records. Moreover, the judge found compelling the argument that the district overstepped its authority by penalizing students for off-campus, non-school activities. As a consequence, he didn’t see the need to evaluate the petition’s other alleged violations.
“This suspension was not a suspension based on any specifics in the Education Code. This was a suspension designed to satisfy the political needs of the district and to be politically correct,” attorney Mark Rosen, of Santa Ana, said at the trial last Aug. 28.
Administrators suspended Student Doe and four other students last January after the Laguna Beach Independent published a story about their involvement in a winter-break episode. That involved toilet papering a girl’s house, described by the judge as “mischief,” and hurling a watermelon at the home of an African-American classmate where one or more of the group yelled the youth’s name and racially insensitive words, Bauer’s ruling said. The article relied largely on the accounts of Maurice Possley and Cathleen Falsani, parents of the African-American youth. When school resumed after the break, they pressed school administrators to act and called for “zero tolerance for any acts of hate,” the ruling said.
Juvenile authorities investigated the Dec. 27, 2016, incident as a possible hate crime, but would later decline to prosecute at least two of the youths, including Student Doe, said co-counsel Meldie Moore. Police detectives questioned Student Doe about the incident at school on Jan. 9 and read him his rights as a criminal suspect, according to his father. Student Doe told investigators he was surprised at how events transpired Dec. 27 and protested the actions of his companions at the time, according to the trial transcript.
Briefed that day about the outcome of the interview by detectives, the assistant principal did not personally question Student Doe about the incident other than to ask “is there anything you want to say?” Billinger said in a court declaration. Nor did he impose discipline then. That came four days later, when Superintendent Jason Villoria discussed Billinger’s findings and the incident’s impact on the African-American student with other administrators and legal counsel, who collectively supported a suspension based on the conclusion that an act of hate violence had occurred that created a hostile educational environment, Villoria said in a declaration.
The legal limits of discipline by school administrators will again be scrutinized in a motion for a new trial by the district’s attorney, Mark R. Bresee, of Irvine. His goal is to reverse the judgment finding Student Doe’s suspension unlawful. In a Dec. 11 court filing, Bresee contends there are grounds for a new trial due to mistakes by the judge in interpreting the Education Code and other procedural errors. A Court of Appeals hearing is set for March.
In a contempt of court hearing Dec. 14 over the district’s failure to expunge the suspension as ordered, Judge Bauer read from a mission statement he found on the school district’s website. It described its aim as preparing students for career, college and global citizenship in a supportive, caring environment.
“I’m going to help them meet their goal,” Bauer said. “I’m going to help them achieve their mission statement by granting this request” to remove the blemish from Student Doe’s record during the appeal process. “If you prevail, you get to reinstate the blot on his record,” Bauer said.
Bresee protested. “The district was and is attempting to promote that mission that you just read from on behalf of the victim of the act who was subjected to a hostile, intimidating educational environment. That’s what this is about from the district’s perspective.”
For Student Doe and his parents, the court battle achieved their immediate aim. It allows the student, now a senior, to submit college applications unsullied by a suspension for “hostile educational environment.”
A court hearing on Feb. 26 will determine whether the district will also pay Student Doe’s legal fees.
The family is seeking $76,294 in legal fees, district spokeswoman Leisa Winston said. The district’s tab for the case is similar, $79,909, including $3,600 related to the cost so far of its appeal. She said the district’s insurer does not cover the expense of “injunctive relief” cases — lawsuits where the person suing is not seeking money damages for injury, pain or lost wages.
Winston said more than once the district’s lawyer proposed meeting to seek a resolution of the case, which was rebuffed by the family. She could not immediately provide the dates of when those offers were made.
“That’s 100 percent false,” Student Doe’s father said. “They never asked for a meeting.”
Since the judge’s ruling against the district, Student Doe’s parents for the first time discussed their account of the incident and its aftermath with the Indy. They say they have heard from other Laguna parents who question if their children were also subject to unlawful discipline, but lacked the financial resources to contest it.
In the last school year, the state Education Department database shows LBHS reported 26 student suspensions, including eight for acts of hate violence. In the last five years, the number of student suspensions ranged from 21 to 60, with disruption, drugs and defiance the most prevalent offenses.
This story was updated with new information Feb. 2.