One morning two years ago, baby sitter Eva Del Rio went to drop off her charge at Madison Elementary in Pasadena, the same K-5 school where she had sent her own children.
When she knocked on a closed campus entrance, Principal Juan Ruelas cursed, she said, and threatened to report her to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if she tried to knock again.
“I felt discriminated against, humiliated,” she said Tuesday, in Spanish. “I felt pain.”
Del Rio is one of five people who have sued the Pasadena Unified School District, alleging that Ruelas violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and that the district violated anti-discrimination laws by failing to investigate a formal complaint against him.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court by attorneys at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, claims that the district “had actual knowledge of the harassment” and “acted with deliberate indifference.”
Ruelas did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday, and a Pasadena Unified spokeswoman declined to comment.
Ruelas came to Madison in 2015 and left last June. His time at the school was rocky. A lot of staff left during his tenure, and he faced allegations of cheating. Parents petitioned to have him fired. The Pasadena Star-News reported that two local lawyers promised to donate $20,000 to Madison if the district fired Ruelas.
When Ruelas was removed from his job as principal of Madison, he became the director of the district’s Language Assessment & Development Department.
The plaintiffs and their lawyers say the problem is bigger than Ruelas.
“We’re not talking about just a problematic principal,” said Juan Rodriguez, a MALDEF attorney on the case. “We are talking about a school district that keeps turning a blind eye.”
Like many other school districts in California, Pasadena Unified has promised at a time of increased anxiety about immigration enforcement to keep all students safe, regardless of their legal status. Last December, in the wake of President Trump’s election, the district passed a resolution to bar ICE agents from searching school districts without a warrant.
A day after Del Rio’s run-in with Ruelas, a Latina mother, identified only as Jane Doe in the lawsuit, allegedly met with Ruelas to complain that the school was throwing children’s uneaten lunches away too quickly.
She alleges that when she told Ruelas she would file a formal complaint against the school if he didn’t address her concerns, he threatened to send ICE to the school and then laughed at her and walked away.
That September, the mother told her story to the school board at a public meeting, and filed a formal complaint with the district alleging race-based discrimination. In October, she said, the district’s human resources office decided that the complaint was not a district matter and referred it back to Ruelas.
At a later meeting that the mother attended with a district representative and Ruelas, she alleges the district representative told her she was “defaming” Ruelas. She said she felt intimidated and felt the district implicitly was threatening to sue her to prevent her from telling people about Ruelas’ threats.
The mother, who had been volunteering for a long time at the school, said she also was told that she could not help with schoolwide programs because Ruelas didn’t want her on campus.
According to a Facebook page, parents organized to support the mother before her appearance at a December school board meeting.
At the meeting, once the mother had spoken about the alleged threat and the district’s response, the complaint states, a school aide said publicly that she wanted to call ICE about her. That statement went unaddressed, according to the complaint.
“It’s not normal, it’s an ugly thing,” Del Rio said Tuesday of the threats she and the others are alleging. “It should never happen again.”