California School Officials May Not Indefinitely Ban Parent from Child’s School As Retaliation for Free Speech or Without Opportunity to Contest

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(Sacramento, CA) – In a ruling that recognizes the critical right of all parents to participate in their children’s education, a federal court today rejected Gustine, California school officials’ attempt to dismiss a Latina mother’s lawsuit challenging the school principal’s decision to ban her from campus after she sought to protect her son’s education. The court held that banning parents from school cannot be done in retaliation for exercise of free-speech rights. It further held that, under California law, no parental ban can extend beyond two weeks without providing the parent as chance at a hearing to contest the legitimacy of the ban.

The decision comes in a lawsuit filed by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) on behalf of a Latina mother who was indefinitely banned from a Merced County elementary school after lodging complaints about her son’s treatment in class.

In denying a motion filed by the defendants – the school principal and two other officials – to dismiss the case, U.S. District Court Judge Anthony W. Ishii ruled on Thursday that barring a parent from campus indefinitely in retaliation for free-speech activity was unlawful. Further, Judge Ishii held that, “California law provides a sufficiently concrete right allowing parents to participate in their child’s education, such that an alleged ‘indefinite ban’ cannot be imposed without a hearing.”

“California law acknowledges the importance of parental involvement in children’s education,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “This court ruling recognizes that such involvement cannot be unfairly or arbitrarily denied to any parent.” 

The lawsuit was filed in September 2017 on behalf of Claudia Macias, who complained in August 2015 to the then-principal of Romero Elementary School – the only school in an unincorporated community in Merced County – that her fourth-grade son’s assigned teacher behaved in a manner that triggered the boy’s acute anxiety.

Macias and her husband appealed to the principal, Lisa Filippini, to assign their son to a different classroom. The parents arranged to visit the classroom in September 2015, but were turned away by Filippini. The principal summoned the school’s resource officer, a Merced County Sheriff’s deputy, and told Macias she was indefinitely banned from the school after claiming she screamed at and harassed two teachers.

The deputy told Macias that she would be arrested if she ever returned to the school unless it was an emergency. The indefinite ban did not extend to her husband, but the deputy escorted them both out of the school.  As a result of this week’s ruling, Macias will be able to move forward in proving that the unconstitutional actions she alleges did occur.

“The court’s decision makes clear that school officials cannot circumvent California parental involvement rights by retaliating against advocate-parents by indefinitely banning them under the guise of maintaining order on campus,” said MALDEF staff attorney Juan Rodriguez.

The lawsuit names Filippini, Gustine Unified School District Superintendent Bill Morones, who upheld her decisions and is currently on leave from his job, and the school resource officer, Brian Miller, as individual defendants. It alleges that they violated Macias’ First Amendment right to criticize how they treated her son and further violated her free-speech rights by banning her from the school, thus preventing further discussion of her son’s needs.

The suit also asserts that the school officials and the district violated Macias’ Fourteenth Amendment rights under the Due Process Clause by depriving her of the right to participate in her child’s education – a right clearly recognized in California law – without a hearing to contest that denial.

The parents eventually transferred their son to a school in a different town and district.

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