Union City Students Reach Groundbreaking Settlement with Union City and School District

New Policies are a Model for School Districts and Police Throughout the State

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ACLU of Northern CA

Union City – The New Haven Unified School District and the City of Union City have each reached groundbreaking settlements with students in Union City as a result of a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Northern California on behalf of three high school students whose civil rights were violated. On February 22, 2002 the three were rounded up along with a group of mostly Latino and Asian students at James Logan High School for a so-called “gang intervention” meeting. The lawsuit, Benitez v. Montoya, was filed on January 30, 2003 in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California.

The incident occurred when James Logan High School officials, along with police officers from Union City and the City of Fremont, rounded up close to 60 students during lunch hour and ordered them to go to separate classrooms based upon their race or ethnicity. Once there, police officers and school administrators ringed the classroom. The students were searched, interrogated, and photographed. The police then took the photographs and information they had collected back to the police station.

“The far-reaching new policies put into place by this settlement will ensure that the events of February 22, 2002 will never happen again at James Logan High School,” said ACLU-NC staff attorney Ann Brick. “These policies are designed to ensure that schools and the police will respond to concerns about gang problems by focusing on conduct, not by erroneously labeling students based on their race or ethnicity or on how they dress or on who their friends are.”

The settlement agreement with the New Haven Unified School District (NHUSD) includes the following:

  • The District will remove all records from its files that make any reference to the identity of students who were rounded up on February 22, 2002.
  • School officials may not detain students for the purpose of searching, photographing, or interrogating them based on race, on the identity of the student’s friends, the student’s clothing, the areas of the school where the student hangs out, or on the student’s neighborhood.
  • There will be no photographing of students for inclusion in any gang database or any other compilation related to gang activity.
  • Students and lockers can only be searched when school officials have specific reason to believe that a student has violated either school rules or the law.
  • School officials should only call on law enforcement to intervene when it is necessary to protect the safety of people on campus, it is required by law, or when school officials have individualized reasonable suspicion to believe that a student is breaking the law.
  • School officials must notify the parents, obtain their consent, and give them an opportunity to be present during questioning of their elementary school age child.
  • Before questioning by police, high school students should be given the opportunity to have a parent or other trusted adult present.

“I really hope that my actions will prevent my younger brother from ever going through what I went through,” said Brian Benitez, a plaintiff. “The police and school officials made me feel like a criminal. When they ordered me into that classroom, I felt like I had no rights. And I knew this was wrong.”

The settlement with Union City puts in place a set of rules governing interactions between police and students that include:

  • All photographs that were taken of the students and all field identification cards or other documents that were created as a result of the February 22, 2002 round-up will be destroyed.
  • Union City police agree to not engage in racial profiling on or off campus. This means that police will not use race, ethnicity, or nationality in deciding whether to stop or question a student unless they are seeking a particular person who has been identified in part by one of these factors.
  • When questioning or searching a student on campus, Union City police officers must generally follow the same rules that apply when questioning or searching students off campus. Police officers will not request school officials to search or question students in order to avoid these requirements.
  • Whenever the student’s consent to questioning is required, the officer must tell the student that he or she does not have to stay and answer questions.
  • When questioning students on campus, Union City police will inform the student of his or her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if the student is subject to a “custodial” interrogation, i.e., situations in which the student is not free to leave.
  • The agreement places strict limits on when police can take photographs of students, unless the student consents to having a photograph taken. Before obtaining that consent, Union City police officers must tell the student what use may be made of the photograph, including whether it will be included in any kind of database or mug book. These rules apply both on and off campus.
  • The agreement also places strict limits on when police can fill out a “field identification card” about a student. These rules also apply both on and off campus.
  • Union City will provide a sworn statement that none of the information obtained as a result of the round-up was entered into the Cal-Gang database or into any other gang-related database maintained by any other law enforcement agency.

Within 90 days of the Settlement Agreement, Union City police officers who have contact with students of the New Haven Unified School District will undergo training on the new policies and procedures that were established.

“We applaud both the School District and the City for their responsiveness in adopting a set of policies that address the concerns raised by this lawsuit,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Stacey Wexler of the San Francisco law firm of Keker and Van Nest. “These policies create a ‘win-win’ situation for everyone,” added John Hansen, of San Francisco’s Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott, LLP, who also co-counseled the case as an ACLU cooperating attorney.

ACLU-NC cooperating attorneys for the case are Stacey Wexler of Keker &Van Nest and John T. Hansen of Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott, LLP in San Francisco.

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Benitez v. Montoya 

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