AHS, City Accused Of Civil Rights Flub – September 10, 2011

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Daniel Mintz

Eye Correspondent

ARCATA – Arcata High School is again the target of a civil rights lawsuit, with an Aug. 16 complaint alleging that school officials illegally seized and searched a student’s cell phone and improperly suspended her.

The student, Stephanie Calderon, and her mother, Claudia D’Arcy-Calderon, are represented by Attorney Peter Martin. He is also the lawyer for the family of an Arcata High School (AHS) student that is suing school officials and the Northern Humboldt Unified School District over a vehicle search that was spurred by a marijuana-related t-shirt.

The Calderon complaint names former Arcata High School Principal Lisa Gray, Assistant Principal Geri Wood and District Superintendent Kenny Richards as primary defendants.

One of the complaint’s main allegations is that “without any reasonable suspicions of wrongdoing on Stephanie’s part,” Gray called Calderon into her office on Dec. 17, 2010 and demanded to see her cell phone. Gray then “viewed the private information contained in Stephanie’s cell phone database,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit also alleges that about a month later, Wood violated several sections of the state’s education code by issuing a two-day suspension to Calderon over an alleged shoplifting incident which occurred off the school’s campus.

The alleged actions against Calderon are described in the complaint as “retaliation for her assertion of her civil rights.”

Claudia Calderon has “battled with the school administration over issues related to accommodation of Stephanie’s disabilities as required by law,” the complaint states, culminating in the filing of two civil rights complaints against the school district to the U.S. Department of Education.

Though not detailed in the complaint, Calderon’s disabilities resulted in repeated absences which were allegedly treated as truancy rather than medically-related leaves.

The suspension mentioned in the complaint is connected to an incident which occurred at the nearby Wildberries market. Calderon was accused of shoplifting when she walked out of the store with an unpaid-for sandwich.

Calderon claimed she’d forgotten to pay for it and the complaint points out that she was taking the medication alprazolam, an anti-anxiety drug whose side effects include memory impairment.

But the complaint argues that regardless of the circumstances, Calderon was improperly “singled out” and suspended for “misconduct unconnected with the school or the campus.”

Her family is seeking punitive damages, $25,000 for a civil code violation related to the alleged cell phone search and attorney’s fees.

John Vrieze, the attorney for the district, was contacted but declined to comment on the allegations because they’re the subject of active litigation.

In an e-mail exchange, Martin said his client was called into Gray’s office to “discuss some off-campus conversations she had had with some cheerleaders.” Martin said that Gray “apparently did not believe Stephanie’s answers, and demanded to search her text messages on her cell phone.”

Gray treated Calderon differently because “Stephanie’s history asserting her rights aroused Mrs. Gray’s ire against her,” Martin continued.

He said his client has “multiple medical issues and is under the care of a physician.”  He added that she is “absent from school frequently due to medical treatment” and “most of the accommodation required relates to making up work and getting assignments because she has been absent.”

Martin has some personal experience with the school. “I have two children that graduated from Arcata High School,” he said. “I believe that a culture of disrespect towards students’ constitutional rights among administrators has existed at Arcata High School for many years.”

He added, “I believe this is starting to change in response to the litigation that this office has filed.”




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