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District to Oust Critic's Daughter

Education: Claremont school officials say the girl lives outside boundaries. Her mother, who has sued over school fees, alleges retaliation.

November 08, 2001|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Claremont school officials have decided to kick a high school senior out of school because they allege that, after keeping her under surveillance, they discovered that she lives outside the district's boundaries.

But Victoria Banker is not just another student. Her mother is suing the Claremont Unified School District, alleging that it unconstitutionally charges fees for books and other items. She's seeking refunds for parents. A similar lawsuit recently cost Pasadena $227,000 to settle.

With the pending removal of the 17-year-old from attendance rolls, the district's lawyer is asking that the lawsuit be dismissed because the plaintiff won't be a Claremont student.

"This isn't a coincidence. This is retaliation," said Catherine Banker, 47, the girl's mother. "These are slimy lawyer tactics. They're stalking my 17-year-old daughter. They don't care about kids. They care about the bottom line."

Banker and her husband, David Banker, say he owns and lives in a Claremont home while she lives in Upland.

The couple say they are separated and share custody of their daughter. During the week, they said, their daughter lives at the Claremont home most of the time, except when her father is away on business.

"I showed them my deed of trust, my utility bill to register her. I pay taxes here," said David Banker, of the home in Claremont he bought in May 1999.

Initially, the Bankers said school district officials wrote them saying they would remove their daughter from Claremont High School on Wednesday but this week delayed that action until next Wednesday.

Catherine Banker, a member of the state curriculum commission and a consultant to school districts, said the district has given them no chance to challenge or appeal the decision.

She said the first she learned of her daughter's removal was when Apalla U. Chopra, an attorney from O'Melveny & Myers representing the district, sent a fax Nov. 2 to her attorney.

Attached to Chopra's letter requesting that the lawsuit be dropped because Victoria Banker was "attending school in the district improperly" was another letter explaining she was to be removed from district rolls Nov. 7.

District officials alleged in that letter that Victoria Banker lived at the Upland address, based on confidential information from a third party and subsequent checks.

"We monitored both addresses simultaneously to determine where Victoria resides. During our checks, we observed Victoria leaving her Upland address. At no time during our checks did we observe Victoria leaving the Claremont address listed as her residence," wrote Charles W. Freitas, Claremont's director of child welfare and attendance.

"Due to pending litigation, Claremont Unified School District cannot comment on the issue," said Freitas in an interview. "In addition, due to state and federal laws, individual student information is protected and cannot be released."

Because the district of 6,300 students 30 miles east of Los Angeles is well-regarded and seen as attractive, administrators "always try to determine if a student lives in the district. . . . We do checks, and that includes address checks," he said.

David Banker said the district never contacted him to ask whether his daughter lived at the Claremont home and he believes the monitoring was done in October. "I was in Florida for a couple of weeks on business, and my daughter stayed with my wife."

His wife, a former staffer for Assemblyman Bill Leonard (R-San Bernardino), sued Claremont Unified on her daughter's behalf Aug. 13, alleging that some fees imposed by the district violate the California Constitution's "free education clause."

That clause has long been interpreted as making it illegal to levy fees for classes and materials. In 1984, the state Supreme Court expanded that definition to include all extracurricular activities, such as sports and music.

Among the payments challenged in the suit are those for student cards, physical education clothing, parking permits, transportation fees for school athletes as well as various school supplies.

The suit claims that while the district calls some of the payments "donations," they are often a prerequisite. The lawsuit filed by attorneys from the Escondido-based United States Justice Foundation in Los Angeles Superior Court seeks to stop the fees and get refunds for those who paid during the last four years.

"Unfortunately, school districts don't want to deal with the problem, just attack the people complaining," said Gary G. Kreep, the foundation's executive director.

Catherine Banker runs an education technology consultant business, where she writes grant applications for dozens of school districts, including L.A. Unified.

But she said she is more concerned about how her daughter reacts to her battle with the district.

"My daughter is terrified to come to the house in Upland. They have violated her privacy."

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