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Protesters file excessive force claim against Oakland Unified

Anti-school closure protesters Saru Jayaraman, left on crutches and Amy Haruyama, right, at the Oakland school board meeting on Nov. 13, are among nine Oakland Unified parents or staff members who have filed a claim against the district alleging excessive police force was used against them at the Oct. 23 board meeting. (Photos by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

Nine Oakland Unified parents and staff members have filed a claim against the district alleging “use of excessive force” by police during a school board meeting last month.

According to the claim, district police “used aggressive take-down maneuvers and baton strikes to cause injuries” and other members of the police and security force “failed to intervene in the use of excessive force and false arrests.”

The claim stems from an Oct. 23 school board meeting where police and security guards stood behind temporary metal barricades that were about 3-feet high to keep the public away from the stage where the board sits after two previous meetings had been disrupted. When one protester jumped over the barricade and others pushed some barricades down, police thrust the public back using batons.

Oakland Unified spokesman John Sasaki said Tuesday that the district does not comment on “pending litigation.” However, in an Oct. 24 press conference about the incident, district police chief Jeff Godown said his staff was “using enough force to keep those protesters off that stage.” The district also said it intended to hire an outside investigator to review the police response and would release the police body cam videos after the investigator reviewed them. The district has not released the name of the investigator, or released the police body cam videos.

Oakland Unified police Chief Jeff Godown speaks Oct. 24 about the police response to protesters at the previous night’s board meeting.

Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, who is representing the group, said this was the first time in the 35 years he has been involved with the district as an Oakland resident who also works in the city, that he has seen “the school board send armed police officers with batons and other weapons to break up an assembly of parents and teachers.” He served on the school board for eight years and was a legal adviser to former Mayor Jean Quan.

A leader of the protest, Saru Jayaraman, who is a parent of two children attending Kaiser Elementary, was taken to a hospital by police due to her injuries. She said she suffered two torn ligaments and a torn meniscus in her knee that required surgery.

The protesters were objecting to the board’s decision to close Kaiser, a small school located in the Oakland hills that has a diverse student population from throughout the city, high test scores and strong parent support. At the end of the school year, Kaiser will merge with Sankofa Academy, which is located in a lower-income area. Its students score lower on state tests and parents say Sankofa’s district funding is inadequate.

Other protesters named in the claim are:  Kent Schrauth, Deidre Snyder, Amy Haruyama, Stephen Young, Martin Boyden, Zach Norris, Michael Louden and Eric Pettengill. Schrauth, a district parent who was not arrested, suffered a broken rib. Snyder, a retired teacher and Haruyama, a first-grade teacher at Kaiser Elementary, said they suffered severe bruising from baton strikes. Haruyama said she was knocked to the ground. Police arrested Snyder, but not Haruyama.

Deidre Snyder, a retired Oakland Unified teacher, speaks about a claim she and eight other district staff members or parents have filed against the district alleging district police used excessive force against them at the Oct. 23 meeting.

District parents Young, Boyden, Norris, Louden and Pettengill, who were all arrested, say they suffered minor injuries or emotional distress. The claim names the district, school board, Godown, and police sergeant Donald Perrier, along with other unnamed administrators.

The district has 45 days to respond from the date the claim was filed. If it rejects the claim, Siegel said he will file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court citing violations of state and federal laws by district police, including violations of their constitutional rights.

The claim is for unspecified damages related to medical expenses, loss of employment and emotional distress. Siegel said Nov. 25, that the district had not yet responded to the claim, filed Nov. 22. On a related issue, Seigel said he was informed that the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office would not be pressing charges against the six people arrested during the melee.

The claim also alleges district police made “false and retaliatory arrests” of six people charging them with disturbing the meeting. In addition, it alleges “free speech retaliation” against all nine claimants, saying “the officers were motivated by unlawful retaliatory intent against” protesters “because of their advocacy against school closures and the proliferation of charter schools in Oakland.”

Attorney Dan Siegel, center, is flanked by Oakland Unified parent Michael Louden, left, retired teacher Deidre Snyder and first-grade teacher Amy Haruyama, right, as he announces the claim they filed against the district on Nov. 22, alleging excessive use of police force at the Oct. 23 board meeting.

It charges the district and its police with violating state laws related to false arrest and assault and battery, along with federal claims based on alleged violations of the claimants’ First Amendment free speech rights and 14thAmendment rights protecting them against excessive police force, Siegel said.

“Our point is this: parents and teachers have a vital interest in school board decisions,” Siegel said. “They have a vital interest in making sure children in Oakland receive a quality education,” and that schools are not closed and that the district is “not taken over” by charter schools.

“The board needs to listen to people, treat them with respect and hopefully take action that the community demands,” he said, adding that district officials will face expensive and embarrassing litigation “when they fail to do so.”

* Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.