SAN FRANCISCO — A Contra Costa County Superior Court has ruled that the Antioch Unified School District violated the rights of two students when it improperly expelled them from school following an off-campus incident in which police officers pepper sprayed the students and forcefully arrested them. The judge overturned the expulsions.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) and Berkeley attorney Jivaka Candappa sued the Antioch Unified School District on behalf of the students, arguing that the school district lacked the authority to expel the students based on the incident, and that the students’ due process rights were violated during the expulsion hearings.
“No student deserves to be treated in the manner that these students were treated by the school district and by the police,” said Greta Hansen of the ACLU-NC. “The court’s ruling sends a message to school districts about the limits of district authority to punish students for conduct with no legitimate connection to school.”
The two teens were expelled for their alleged involvement in a March 2007 incident at a local shopping center and gas station in which several students from Deer Valley High School were arrested by police officers.
In his ruling, Judge Thomas Maddock of the Contra Costa County Superior Court stated that the District had no authority to expel the two students based on an incident that occurred off campus and after school. Judge Maddock concluded that because the school resource officer was working with the Antioch Police Department, he was acting as a regular police officer, not as a school official. (The school resource officer is an employee of the Antioch Police Department.)
School authorities argued that the students’ involvement in the incident could be viewed as a violation of the Education Code because one of the police officers involved in the incident was the school resource officer assigned to Deer Valley High School. After an administrative hearing, the School District expelled the students, and the Contra County Board of Education upheld the expulsions on appeal. Judge Maddock overturned the expulsions on May 7, 2008.
On March 7, 2007 a student and two friends were walking through the parking lot of Deer Valley Plaza on their way to a fast food restaurant. They were stopped by an officer of the Antioch Police Department, who accused them of blocking traffic by walking through the parking lot rather than on the sidewalk. Shortly thereafter Officer Vincent approached them again, threatened to write one of the three students a citation for blocking traffic, and got out of his vehicle. One student ran away from the officer and the officer gave chase, holding a canister of pepper spray in his hand.
The officer and others who joined him apprehended the student at a nearby gas station, where they pepper sprayed him, threw him to the ground, and forcefully arrested him. They also pepper sprayed and forcefully arrested several other students, many of whom were mere bystanders. Some of the incident was caught on video by another student using a digital camera. Among the officers involved in the incident was the school resource officer assigned to Deer Valley High School. After a brief investigation by the vice principal, the students were suspended.
In May and June of 2007, the School District held expulsion hearings for each student. The police officers involved in the incident submitted police reports with a detailed accounting of the incidents, but attorneys for the students were not afforded the opportunity to cross-examine the officers in order to test the veracity of their account.