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Inglewood High Coach Files Suit Against School District, Principal

Times Staff Writer

The basketball coach at Inglewood High School has filed a lawsuit against the Inglewood school district and Lawrence Freeman, the high school principal, seeking $1 million in damages for alleged injuries stemming from a June 6 scuffle in the principal’s office.

The lawsuit alleges that Vincent Combs suffered injuries and was placed “in great fear for his life and physical well-being” when Freeman slammed his office door into Combs’ arm during a heated exchange between the two men.

The suit, filed Sept. 14, names the Inglewood Unified School District as a co-defendant, saying that Freeman was acting as a district employee with the district’s “permission and consent.”

Excessive Force Denied

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Freeman, who refused to comment on the suit Wednesday, has in the past denied that he used excessive force in ejecting Combs from the principal’s office. He has said Combs refused to leave the office after Freeman had disciplined him for not buying trophies for members of the basketball team.

Freeman has said Combs blocked the doorway of his office and refused to leave, but Combs has maintained that he was injured when Freeman unnecessarily forced the door onto his arm and shoulder.

“I think it’s pretty much an open-and-shut case,” said Combs’ attorney, Laurence Labovitz. “No one is denying that the incident took place. . . . The question is what kind of remedy is available to Combs. . . . It’s the same as if Freeman drove his car into Combs.”

Art Grant, the attorney for the school district, predicted that the suit would have little chance of success, but he declined to comment further.

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Charges Not Filed

In July, Inglewood City Atty. Howard Rosten declined to file charges against Freeman in the incident and instead called on the school district to discipline Freeman for what Rosten called his “unprofessional, undignified and reprehensible” conduct.

Later that month, school board members withdrew a proposal to suspend Freeman because of a provision in the state Education Code that restricts disciplinary action against employees in the summer months.

Freeman, 67, has been embroiled in controversy since he arrived at the troubled high school in 1984. Although he is credited with curtailing the school’s gang and drug problems and establishing high expectations for students, critics say the former Army officer has damaged the school’s morale by using dictatorial tactics on teachers.

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Supt. George McKenna, who could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit, sent Freeman home on the day of the confrontation with Combs.

Freeman was also suspended for a week last September after he and Inglewood Adult School Principal John Rabun argued about overcrowding in adult school classes at Inglewood High. In that incident, which occurred just a few days after McKenna had accepted the superintendent’s post, Freeman was accused of disrupting adult school classes.

Defamation Suit

Freeman has also been named in a $1-million defamation suit filed by Delores Ridgeway, a computer lab technician at the high school. Ridgeway, who is also being represented by Labovitz, alleges that in 1987 Freeman accused her in front of a group of students of protecting drug dealers and allowing drug deals in her class.

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Board member Joseph Rouzan said he considers Combs’ allegations against Freeman to be serious but said he had not seen the lawsuit and had not received a full report on the incident from McKenna.

“I know as a board member, I consider it a serious allegation, but at this point it is still an allegation,” said Rouzan, a former Inglewood police chief. “All we have is one person’s word against another, one witness’ word against another. . . . We will act on facts and comprehensive reports and investigations. We will not act on innuendo and hearsay.”

McKenna’s preliminary report to the school board dated June 12 said Freeman “acted in an inappropriate and unprofessional manner.”

The superintendent’s report added: “There are a number of teacher and parent complaints, that we have received during the year, related to the ‘unprofessional demeanor’ ” of Freeman. He added that “teacher absenteeism is higher at Inglewood High School than at any other school; and legal fees for defending litigation brought against the principal exceed that of all other schools.”

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