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Judge Dismisses Students' Lawsuit Over 'Faces of Death' Film : Courts: Complaint alleged emotional distress after macabre movie was shown as part of a lesson. Ruling sides with district, although teacher was reprimanded.

February 11, 1995|STEVE RYFLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GLENDALE — A judge dismissed a lawsuit Friday against the Los Angeles Unified School District in which two high school students claimed they suffered nightmares and other emotional problems after seeing the shock film "Faces of Death" in class.

The students saw excerpts from the film--which depicts fatal accidents, executions and other grisly scenes--in their cultural awareness class on Dec. 16, 1993.

In the suit, the boys and their parents charged that social sciences teacher Roger Haycock violated district policies and the state education code, and they asked for medical expenses and other damages.

But Judge S. James Otero sided with the district, which argued that students should not be able to sue based on what they are taught in class.

"If this case were allowed to go forward, it would open the floodgates," said David Ozeran, an attorney representing the district. "There would potentially be a huge number of lawsuits because there is probably nobody who hasn't suffered some sort of emotional damage in class during 12 years of education."

The Verdugo Hills High School students, Jesse Smith and Darby Hughes, were required to watch the film and to write a paper on it, according to their lawyer, Charles Finkel. Smith and Hughes--whose parents filed the lawsuit on their behalf--also sought damages stemming from their alleged harassment by other students following their complaints about the film.

"Both of these students come from very religious families that have taken steps as best they can to prevent their children from seeing this type of trash," Finkel said. "There's no doubt that this film was inappropriate to show to this class. The rules of the school district dictate that, and the fact that the teacher was reprimanded dictate that."

The lawsuit cites several policy statements, called bulletins, issued by the district superintendent's office that Finkel believes Haycock violated. One requires all teachers to get clearance before showing films not on a pre-approved list and mandates that educational materials "must encourage . . . the humane treatment of animals and people."

The jacket liner for "Faces of Death"--a popular video released in the early 1980s and followed by four sequels--promises a "brutal film" and says that those who watch it must "do so at their own risk." It says the highlights include baby seals being clubbed to death, a monkey's skull being cracked open, cultists eating human organs and a man being eaten by alligators.

According to court documents, Verdugo Hills Principal Gary Turner wrote a note for the teacher's file stating that showing the film was inappropriate and giving Haycock an unsatisfactory rating. Turner's note also recommended that the teacher be suspended for two days. Turner could not be reached for comment, but Carol Gorton, the school's assistant principal, said she, too, felt the film was inappropriate.

"I was the first person who (Smith) and his mother came to complain to on the day it happened. He seemed to be somewhat upset, and he painted a very graphic picture as to what he had seen," Gorton said.

But Haycock, who showed excerpts from "Faces of Death" to five classes that day, said in an interview Friday that he believes his case has been blown out of proportion. He said the students were given the option to write about the film as an extra-credit assignment and in fact, several students opted to leave the room and go to the library, he said.

Haycock said he only showed parts of the film depicting animals being killed and did not show portions of the film that depict human death.

"Basically it had to do with the treatment of animals and the way we get our food, which was the lesson," Haycock said. "We go to the supermarket and get our meat, and we think it sanitizes us because it's wrapped in plastic. But it has to be slaughtered for us by someone else. I was trying to show how other cultures provide food for themselves versus the way we do, living in the city."

Haycock, a 33-year veteran of the school district, said he did not find any portions of what was shown objectionable, and said most of the students reacted positively to the film.

Finkel said he has not decided whether to appeal the case. Instead, he said he may pursue legislation to safeguard students from being shown films and educational materials that could be disturbing to them.

"What the judge is saying is that the teacher can break the rules but the students have no redress," Finkel said. "Hopefully, the school district will have learned a valuable lesson and this won't happen again, because if anybody loses, it's the students, all students."

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