SDUHSD may appeal county board’s order to revoke student expulsion

Members of the SDUHSD board at a workshop held in February.
Karen Billing

The San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) is pushing back on the San Diego County Board of Education’s decision to reverse a student’s one-year expulsion for making a threat of violence to Torrey Pines High School. On June 29, the school district’s attorneys from the law firm Artiano Shinoff filed a petition for a writ of administrative mandate against the county board— a request for an immediate stay of an order to reverse its decision.

According to SDUHSD Interim Superintendent Larry Perondi, the district has not yet served the county board with the writ and it is still under consideration to complete the process to request that the county board reconsider its reversal.

The writ states that if the county board’s decision is not set aside, the district will be “irreparably damaged” in that the district will be forced to permit the expelled student to attend district schools, despite the fact that the student presents a “continuing physical danger to himself and/or others.”

According to the court documents, the case in question occurred on Jan. 24, when a student posted a threat that he was going to “shoot up a school” on Snapchat. The next day on Jan. 25, the student posted a photo of the inside of a classroom at Torrey Pines with the caption: "let's just remind people here i wanted to shoot up the school but i forgot my backpack :( [frown-face emoticon]."

The student admitted that he alone drafted the language and posted these two messages and said it was "grave mistake." The San Diego Police Department perceived the threat as serious and immediately contacted district personnel.

The student was suspended from Torrey Pines from Jan. 25 to Feb. 2, for violation of Education Code section 48900.7, which permits a local education agency to suspend and recommend for expulsion an enrolled pupil who has made terroristic threats against school officials or school property, or both. Education code defines "terroristic threat" as "any statement, whether written or oral, by a person who willfully threatens to commit a crime which will result in death, great bodily injury to another person, or property damage,” with the specific intent that the statement is to be taken as a threat, even if there is no intent of actually carrying it out.

On Feb. 1, Torrey Pines Principal Rob Coppo recommended the student for expulsion and on Feb. 2, the district extended the student’s suspension pending an expulsion hearing. At an expulsion hearing on March 2, a panel issued a recommendation to the district board to expel the student for the period of March 16, 2018 through March 16, 2019 and a rehabilitation plan for the student, including 12 sessions of counseling and 50 hours of community service. The district board met in closed session on March 15 and approved the expulsion panel's recommendations.

“In my perspective it was a matter of a student involved in a serious action and according to our education code, he did threaten to cause injury and that met what we felt was cause for expulsion,” said SDUHSD Board President Beth Hergesheimer. “In order to protect all of our students, we needed to follow through with (the expulsion).”

At the past two board meetings in June, a pair of expelled students and their parents have come before the board expressing regret for the incidents that led to their “severe” punishments and requesting reinstatement.

“I have learned my mistake and I’m ready to show everyone I can do better,” said one student, pleading to be able to return to school.

The students have been accompanied by their representative Curtis Davis, a recent University of San Diego Law School graduate and volunteer education advocate for Advocates for Children and Education, which began as a student organization at USD.

At the June 7 SDUHSD board meeting, Davis said he filed the appeal on behalf of one of the students to the San Diego County Board of Education (SDCOE) pursuant to Education Code section 48915 alleging that the expulsion was unlawful. In an appeal hearing on May 31, the county board voted 3-2 to reverse the SDUHSD’s expulsion.

“An appeal before the county board is not a rehearing but a procedural review,” said Music Watson, a spokesperson for SDCOE. “In this situation, based on the records available, the board found that the decision to expel was not supported by the findings prescribed by Education Code section 48915.”

Watson said due to student privacy restrictions and now ongoing litigation the SDCOE board is not able to comment further.

According to Watson, in an average year, there are about 330 expulsions countywide and between one and three expulsion appeals go to the county board. In the 2017-18 school year, there were three expulsion appeals, including the one from SDUHSD.

Davis said with the county board’s findings, the student was ordered to return to school and have his record expunged. Davis said he attempted to collaborate with the district for the student’s return but it did not happen this past school year and every day the student was not in school was a violation of the law.

“There is no stay order from the court and it’s the district’s obligation to go get one,” Davis told the board on June 7.

In addition to the case in question, there were two separate threats of violence at Torrey Pines in February and the San Diego Police Department was involved in both cases—in one, threats were made by a 14-year-old TPHS freshman and in the other, threats were made by a former student. In March, a Canyon Crest Academy student was arrested for making a threat of a school shooting. According to SDUHSD Director of Pupil Services Rick Ayala, the district cannot disclose what disciplinary actions were taken against those students.

Torrey Pines received another threat of violence in May, and the school was forced to cancel classes and all school-related activities. That threat was made by former student 21-year-old Kevin Gregory Matlak and allegedly included the image of a firearm and an expressed desire to end his own life and the lives of others.

Matlak, who was charged with three felonies, pleaded guilty on July 10 to one count of making a criminal threat. He will be placed on five years probation and sentenced to a year in custody, which he will be able to serve at a residential treatment facility. Matlak will be sentenced Aug. 10.

“The day that the county overturned this expulsion was the same day we had to close Torrey Pines,” Hergesheimer said. “It makes me feel even stronger that we have an obligation to protect our students. We don’t know how to differentiate one threat from another, we just have to respond.”

“I do not want to harm the student, but I feel that he needs to be held accountable because we would be held accountable if anything happened,” Hergesheimer said.

At the June 7 board meeting, Davis said as he begins to represent more families in the district, he would like to be able to collaborate and avoid the district having to spend money on attorney fees but said if he has to, he will continue to take unlawful expulsions to county appeal.

“I will continue to expose injustice in the way students are treated when they make mistakes,” Davis said.

Perondi said that the issue of school violence is very scary and serious—the discussion of school safety is one that is happening all over the nation.

“We want to make sure the district is doing its due diligence with respect to all parties and with respect to the process,” Perondi said. “As a superintendent that’s very important to me.”