Berkeley students sue school district for alleged racial discrimination

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Ariel Hayat/File

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Berkeley students and families filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the school district Wednesday for allegedly conducting racially targeted interviews to intimidate Latino, Black and immigrant students from exercising their free speech rights.

The complaint comes at the heels of a lawsuit filed Oct. 26 by Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teacher Yvette Felarca, who alleged first amendment rights violations by the district for putting her on paid leave in September because of her political activities.

School district attorney Marleen Sacks questioned current and former English Language Development, or ELD, students of Felarca on Sept. 21 without contacting their families beforehand, according to the class-action lawsuit.

The lawsuit stated that Sacks asked one seventh grader about the classroom discussion about immigrant rights and slavery in Felarca’s classroom from the previous school year. In addition, the lawsuit states that she asked the student — who is from Peru and is an English-language learner — to detail the political protests he had participated in.

“Sacks made clear that discussions and activity about immigrant rights and opposing racism inside and outside the classroom were not acceptable to the District,” the lawsuit alleged. “(The student) left the interview confused, conflicted, and very afraid.”

Between Sept. 21 and Nov. 2, the lawsuit alleged that district officials “interrogated or informed that it intended to interrogate” 21 of Felarca’s 22 current ELD students the middle school in addition to former ELD students. The school district, the lawsuit alleges, did not do so with any of her current or former non-ELD students.

On Oct. 5, two former ELD Latina Berkeley High students demanded Felarca’s return to the classroom during a board of education meeting’s public comment period. A few days after speaking out, district officials asked them questions about Felarca and their own political activities, according to the lawsuit.

“The interrogations pried into their political activities, questions about their English ability, immigration status, and family members’ national origin and immigration status,” the lawsuit alleged. “(They were) questioned with the intent of intimidating them for their political activities on behalf of immigrant rights.”

Felarca has since returned to the classroom. On Wednesday night prior to a board of education meeting, Felarca and others affiliated with the political-activist group BAMN rallied to speak out in support of immigrant and international students.

School district spokesperson Charles Burress said in an email the district had yet to review the lawsuit and he could not comment at this time. In an Oct. 5 statement regarding Felarca’s administrative leave, the district superintendent and board of education president noted that students occasionally speak with administrators and district legal counsel.

“In some instances, the law or District policy requires parental notification before an interview can take place. In other instances, it is not required by law or District policy,” the statement read, adding that at the time, they would not comment on the interviews because “it would implicate confidential personnel matters.”

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks is the city news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ayoonhendricks.

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  • lspanker

    Given that Felarca think “free speech” includes physically assaulting those with different political views, why does anyone even take her accusations seriously?