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Suit accuses Compton school district of abuse, racial profiling

A group of parents and students have sued the Compton school district, alleging a pattern of abuse and racial profiling of Latinos by school police.

May 13, 2013|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Victor Lopez, 21, a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the Compton Unified School District, stands near photos related to an incident in the suit. In the incident, school officers allegedly beat, pepper sprayed and used a chokehold on Lopez, who was taking video of an arrest on his iPod, and erased cellphone videos taken by students.
Victor Lopez, 21, a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the Compton Unified… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

A group of parents and students have filed a federal lawsuit against the Compton school district alleging a pattern of abuse and racial profiling of Latinos by school police.

One family alleged that school police targeted a student's father for arrest and deliberately got him deported to Mexico after he filed a complaint against an officer.

In another incident, school officers allegedly beat, pepper sprayed and used a chokehold on a bystander who was taking video of an arrest on his iPod, and erased cellphone videos taken by students.

The complaint filed Monday also alleged that police used excessive force against students and parents who protested against district policies and complained that English as a Second Language programs were underfunded.

Attorney Martin Kaufman said the case points to an "organized attempt to discriminate against Latinos."

The lawsuit seeks $41.4 million in damages. It was filed on behalf of three parents, one student and the witness who took the iPod video against the Compton Unified School District and its police department, school police Chief Hourie Taylor, the district superintendent and board of trustees, and multiple individual school police officers and security guards.

School district spokesman Ron Suazo said the district would not comment on the case. Taylor could not be reached.

Lack of Latino political representation has become a hot-button issue in Compton, where Latinos now make up a majority of the population but a minority of eligible voters. The city of Compton and Compton Community College District have both been hit with lawsuits in recent years alleging that they were violating the voting rights of Latinos.

The student body of the Compton Unified School District is nearly 80% Latino, but the school board and most of the school administrators are black.

Plaintiffs Maria Delgado and her husband, Catarino Garcia, allege that they went to the school police station on June 28, 2012, to complain about an officer they believed had racially profiled Garcia in a traffic stop.

Garcia dropped his wife and daughter off at home after leaving the station, they said, and as he was on his way to work, school police pulled him over again for not having a front license plate and arrested him for driving without a license.

According to the complaint, officers then alerted immigration officials, which resulted in his deportation.

Delgado, 26, said she didn't know her husband's whereabouts until the next day, when he called from Tijuana. With her husband gone, she said, she and her three children had to move into her mother's garage at one point.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman said Garcia — who had no prior criminal record — agreed to voluntary removal without a hearing. Garcia subsequently attempted to return to the country and was removed again three times.

A few months later, plaintiff Raquel Espinoza, her 16-year-old son and a friend of his were arrested outside of Compton High School. Officers said in their reports that Espinoza's son had been involved in a fight and that he and his mother became aggressive when school police stopped her van and attempted to question him.

The plaintiffs said there was no fight. They also said officers used excessive force and that Espinoza was targeted for being a parent activist. At some point in the melee, Espinoza's son punched an officer. Witnesses said the officer had grabbed Espinoza and was preparing to hit her with a baton.

Victor Lopez, 21, said he saw the skirmish from across the street and grabbed his iPod to record it.

"I was like, that's not right — that could be my mom," Lopez said.

The video, which was provided by the plaintiff's attorneys, begins with footage of the officer who had been punched kneeling on the ground bleeding. Then it shows another officer dragging Espinoza out of her van and pushing her against a patrol car.

As Lopez walks by with the camera rolling, an officer can be heard saying, "Hey! Put that goddamn phone down."

Lopez responds with an expletive and begins to back up, still recording. The officer who had been holding Espinoza lets her go and comes after Lopez, who after backing up turns to run. The video cuts off as he is apparently tackled. The suit alleged that officers pepper-sprayed Lopez, beat him and broke his nose, and then arrested him on charges of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest.

Reports written by the officers did not mention that Lopez had been ordered to put down the iPod and instead said he cursed at them when they ordered him to leave.

Other students said they had also recorded the incident but that school officers made them hand over their phones and deleted the videos.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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