The Coast News Group
A copy of a writ of administrative mandate. Courtesy photo

District sues county to let student’s expulsion order stand

REGION — San Dieguito Union High School District has taken the first step to sue the San Diego County Board of Education in an attempt to appeal the county’s decision to overturn a district-issued expulsion order. The expulsion stemmed from a Torrey Pines High School student’s alleged “terroristic threats” on social media.

The district’s law firm, Artiano Shinoff, filed a writ of administrative mandate and request for immediate stay on June 29 at San Diego Superior Court. According to Interim Superintendent Larry Perondi, the district has not yet served the county with the suit, which is the next necessary step in pursuing litigation.

Larry Perondi

Perondi said, “The district and the county made decisions that are at odds with each other. The responsibility of the district is to ensure the safety of all students.” He acknowledged that taking potential legal action was creating “angst among the different parties,” but he added, “These are serious charges and serious issues.” Perondi said, “The final decision whether to pursue litigation or not will rest with the board of trustees.”

As previously reported by The Coast News, a Torrey Pines High School student (whose name cannot be disclosed) was expelled on March 16 for allegedly violating California Education Code section 48900.7, which references the making of “terroristic threats against school officials or school property, or both.” The board voted 4-1 to expel, with board member John Salazar as the lone dissenter.

Salazar recently said, “In my experience over the last eight years, San Dieguito’s administration has been extremely vindictive and very unforgiving of our students.” Salazar further stated that the district expels too many students and added, “I also don’t think we should be wasting limited resources on lawsuits with the County Board of Education.”

The boy’s expulsion resulted from two messages he had allegedly posted on Snapchat. The first showed his face with a message written as follows: “imman[expletive] shoot up a school tomorrow.” The second, sent the next day, showed a photo of the inside of a classroom at Torrey Pines, with the caption: “let’s just remind people here i wanted to shoot up the school but i forgot my backpack : ( [frowning-face emoticon].”

John Salazar

The student’s family enlisted the help of education advocate Curtis Davis to contend that while the boy had acted inappropriately on Snapchat, he was joking and never intended to cause actual harm and, therefore, should not have been expelled.  

By California Education Code, in order to be considered a “terroristic threat,” there must be “specific intent that the statement is to be taken as a threat.” In addition, the oral or written statement “on its face and under the circumstances in which it is made, is so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened, a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat.”

On May 31, the county reversed the district’s decision to expel the student — citing “a prejudicial abuse of discretion in the hearing because the decision to expel is not supported by findings prescribed by Education Code section 48915 [grounds for expulsion], and the findings of a terroristic threat are not supported by the evidence.”

Curtis Davis

The county then directed the district to immediately reinstate the student at Torrey Pines and to have the expulsion record expunged.

The district defied the county’s order by refusing to re-enroll the student in June even though by Education Code 48924, a county education board’s decision is considered “final and binding upon the pupil and upon the governing board of the school district.”

The student’s father, whose name must remain anonymous to protect his son’s identity, said in an interview with The Coast News, “From day one, we tried to work in a restorative way first with the school and then the district. We knew our son had made a mistake that we wanted him to learn from without being excessively punished.” The father said they experienced “a wall” first with Torrey Pines High School and then with the district.

He said, “We tried to convey that our son is not a real threat — not in the way that the law defines it. I mean ‘terroristic threat’? It sounds like ‘the war on terror’ or something. Real tragedies that happened with firearms were called in the media ‘mass shootings,’ and in our case my son was alleged to be a ‘terrorist.’ It did not make any sense. It was especially hurtful that due to our cultural background and religious beliefs, our family never possessed or practiced firearms.”

The father explained that when the family could find no support at the school or district level, they resorted to the county appeals process, which was the appropriate vehicle to challenge the district’s decision. After they won the appeal, the family, with Davis as their advocate, still tried to work with the school to reinstate the boy in a way that would “make everyone feel comfortable.” They offered voluntarily to do a threat assessment, for instance. The district and its law firm made no effort to work collaboratively with the family, according to the father.

The father said the process has put “unnecessary and excessive moral distress” on his son, who “was so excited to go back to school” after the county reversed the district’s decision. He said his son’s athletic endeavors have helped the boy “to not break down.”

The son, for his part, has spoken during public comment at several San Dieguito board meetings, once expressing how the refusal to re-enroll him has further harmed his reputation. Yet he still offered to the board to voluntarily speak to other students in the district about what he had done so that others could learn from his mistake. The student has fully complied with all of the district’s stipulations in his rehabilitation plan, such as community service and counseling.

The June 29 writ filing was brought to light by Wendy Gumb, the parent of a district student and the filer of the recall petition against board member Joyce Dalessandro. Gumb emailed the writ to the board, interim superintendent and members of the press immediately before the special board meeting held on July 16.

Joyce Dalessandro

Gumb questioned why details related to the expulsions of both a Torrey Pines student and a Canyon Crest Academy student were provided in the writ’s exhibits. It appears that Artiano Shinoff made a mistake in including the second, unrelated expulsion in the filing.

Gumb also wrote: “When did the school Board Vote to allow the petition to be filed against the County Office of Education? I did not see a report out of closed session that authorized the litigation to be initiated and I do not see the name on the Closed Session Item since this is now Existing Litigation. …”

According to Perondi, the district plans to discuss whether to serve the county or drop the suit during closed session at the next board meeting on July 26. It is unlikely that Artiano Shinoff could represent the district in the lawsuit given that the firm has previously represented the county. Perondi said San Dieguito is “looking at whether to seek different counsel” should it pursue legal action.

If the district could successfully appeal the county’s decision through the superior court, it would still have to reinstate the student at Torrey Pines by January 2019, per expulsion law. According to a public records request shared with The Coast News, the district has spent $579,468 in legal fees during the 2017-2018 school year.