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O.C. Students in a Lawsuit State of Mind

November 14, 1994|ANNA CEKOLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One day he was practicing for a big football game. The next Michael Carter was tackling the legal system, eventually claiming in a lawsuit he was wrongly kicked out of his all-boy Catholic high school for accusing female teachers of "femi-Nazi tactics."

Carter says it's a matter of free speech. Since he sued Servite High School in Anaheim, the Huntington Beach teen-ager has made headlines and received support from Rush Limbaugh, the talk show host who coined the phrase Carter says got him in trouble during a school campaign speech. People now stop Carter for autographs and he has coined a message of his own:

"Question everything," he tells them. "Don't be afraid to speak out."

Carter, whose case is nearing trial in Orange County Superior Court, is part of a recent wave of students who are not just speaking out at school--they are hiring lawyers.

While attorneys, school and court officials don't keep statistics on such lawsuits, many say they believe the number of local cases against schools are rising, from disputes over schoolyard injuries and special education services to complaints that school administrators are trampling basic freedoms.

In recent months, a Mission Viejo teen-ager went to court claiming a teacher violated his constitutional liberties by disciplining him for wearing a devil mascot logo on his letter jacket. Another South County boy called a news conference to allege he was assaulted by a teacher who thought he had been hiding dice. And in another case, a former Newport Harbor High School student sued over what she considered the outrageous and illegal fees of joining her school's cheerleading squad.

"Ten years ago, people would ask me, 'What do schools need an attorney for?' " said attorney Geraldine Jaffe, of the Orange County Department of Education. "Nobody has asked me that in years."

Jaffe attributes the apparent rise to the notion that "school districts are truly microcosms of what's going on in society."

Students, their parents and their lawyers have other ideas, talking of arrogance and stubborn attitudes on the part of administrators and supportive Baby Boomer parents who fought for their own rights as students in the 1960s and '70s.

Strict zero-tolerance disciplinary policies involving weapons, alcohol and drugs, along with changing state and federal law involving special education, also are contributing to litigation, lawyers say.

Whatever the causes, the cases and legal threats are taking a toll from schools, especially administrators who are "getting yelled at from every corner," said David Larsen, an Orange County attorney who often represents school districts.

"A lot more demands are being placed on people that are time consuming and diverting attention away from the basic education programs they are trying to provide," he said.

The threat of civil and criminal action, as well as the potential of losing their credentials and jobs, is putting teachers in "quadruple jeopardy," said Tommye Hutto, with the California Teachers Assn.

"There is a chilling effect," Hutto said. "Teachers are more cautious and less willing to take risks with students.

"It's not good for teachers at all," she added. "It's not good for students either."

School officials say that mistakes can happen and some claims are legitimate, but contend that most of the disputes could be resolved short of the courtroom.

The concerns are just as real for private schools, which have fewer resources to defend themselves in court than larger public districts, said Father Gerald Horan, president of Servite High School.

"I think it's unfortunate that any time a person doesn't get their way, the first thing they threaten to do is sue," Horan said.

"If we could hear and appreciate another person's perspective, if we could respect the fact that another person feels differently, we could make so much more headway. The minute you threaten to sue, you're in a standoff."

Students involved in some local cases say their decision to sue was not made lightly, and they too suffer a heavy price for fighting back.

"This was the last resort," said Heather Delaney, the 17-year-old former cheerleader who is suing Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

Among other things, Delaney alleges she was illegally charged more than $1,700 in one year for her uniforms, coaches and other expenses, fees that boys don't have to pay in their athletic programs.

Delaney said she has lost friends since making her allegations and felt so "unwelcome" at her school that she transferred to another for her senior year. She fought back tears as she talked about what's happened to her final year of high school.

"I've been trying to focus not on what I'm missing, but what I will be accomplishing," Delaney said during as recent interview in her family's living room, her attorney seated at her side. "My goal is that the district will become more sensitive and cheerleading will be more fair and equitable for everyone."

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