March 13, 2006

Gang Label Removed in Santa Cruz County

A Special-Education Student Gets Gang Label Removed in Santa Cruz County

By George B. Sanchez  |  Monterey County Herald  —  In Santa Cruz County, the mother of a special-education student took the Pajaro Valley Unified School District and the Sheriff’s Office to court after they identified her son as a gang member. Though the student was not placed on an anti-gang behavior contract like those used in Salinas, the school resource officer who classified the young man as a gang member later shared the information with deputies. The case, Banuelos v. Tracy, et al., was settled in February 2005 after the school and the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office agreed to remove all records that identify him as a gang member. Anthony Rodriguez, now 18, was seen by Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff Steve Watson in 2003 hanging out at Aptos High School’s anchor, a symbol of the school’s Mariner mascot, with presumed gang members. Watson, who worked as the school’s resource officer, according to court records, had previously seen Rodriguez wearing red clothes, the color associated with Norteño gang members. On Sept. 13, 2003, Watson detained Rodriguez, a special-education student, because he was wearing a 49ers jersey and a red hat given to him by his mother, Rachel Banuelos. He was photographed, searched and questioned about the students he associated with. Rodriguez was “respectful and cooperative,” according to Watson’s records. He was called a gang member and asked if he knew other presumed gang members on campus. Rodriguez said he knew other students Watson identified as gang members because they were classmates and they had grown up together. After the interview, Watson filled out a field interview card on Rodriguez, a common police tool used for interviews and tracking people, according to court records. The card was later submitted to the Sheriff’s Office and the information on it was entered into its gang database. The card identified Rodriguez as a gang member though there was no evidence of gang affiliation off-campus Attorneys said Rodriguez’s identification as a gang member by Watson adversely affected the student’s relationships with teachers and administrative officials. Watson allegedly told other students “that being friends with Rodriguez can have bad consequences.” Attorneys for Rodriguez said the gang identification affected his scholastic performance and eventually he had to transfer to a continuation school in Watsonville. Rodriguez’s new school “is not required to and does not provide a full 240-minute school day and has far fewer resources and a lower academic performance rating than Aptos High and… is much more likely to have gang members and gang-associated students attending than Aptos High,” according to his attorneys’ remarks in court documents. Attorneys for California Rural Legal Assistance and the Youth Law Center filed a lawsuit against the school district, Santa Cruz County and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office in 2004. Salinas attorney Maria Mendoza said she is familiar with the case. The attorneys argued that Rodriguez was unlawfully detained and searched. They argued that identifying him as a gang member based on his clothing was an infringement of his right to free choice. The lawsuit also challenged the constitutionality of the school district’s definition of “gang-type attire” within its dress code. The policy states: “Gang-style clothing may vary from year to year. Prohibited items include hair nets, bandanas, extremely long belts, belt buckles with initials, numbered items (XIII, 13, XIV, 14, etc.), or jewelry commonly held to be related to a gang or gang activity.” The lawsuit alleged that Rodriguez was denied due process because the school provided no meaningful way to challenge his identification as a gang member. When the case was settled, Rodriguez received $1,000 and the school district agreed to establish a clear protocol for parents to learn what clothes are appropriate at schools. More important, said Jack Daniel, a California Rural Legal Assistance attorney who worked on the case, Rodriguez’s name was removed from the county’s computer gang database and there is no longer a record that identifies him as a gang member. “Any gang records they had were expunged. Any gang references in his school records were destroyed,” Daniel said. © 2006 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.