El Rancho High School Principal David Verdugo faces misdemeanor charges of assault and battery in Whittier Municipal Court on Tuesday in a case that began as a dispute over a handful of flyers.
The 42-year-old principal is accused of attacking Michael Acosta, 20, a video store manager, Feb. 9 as Acosta and two others distributed flyers on a sidewalk outside the Pico Rivera campus.
Acosta told police the handbills, which advertised T-shirts sold at his store, were confiscated by a school administrator. When Acosta tried to get the flyers back, he was confronted by Verdugo and three other school officials, a police report says.
Acosta was grabbed from behind and wrestled to the ground by Verdugo, the report says.
Verdugo admits he tried to restrain Acosta, but denies throwing him to the ground. The dispute escalated, he said, because Acosta was verbally abusive.
"I never assaulted him, and I certainly didn't batter him," Verdugo said.
Although Acosta was not seriously hurt, prosecutors say the attack constitutes battery.
Several people, including a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy Les Taller, witnessed the confrontation. The deputy, who is assigned to patrol the school, did not consider the confrontation serious enough to warrant an arrest, Sheriff's Detective Jeff Grant said.
After Acosta pressed battery charges, the case was sent to the district attorney's office for prosecution. Charges were filed April 30.
Verdugo "did batter this kid," Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert J. Hale said.
"Battery is just offensive touching, and that's what he did without any lawful justification," Hale said. "We have a man who is in a position of responsibility for maintaining discipline (at school). I don't know what tactics he's used in the past, but in this particular case, he has crossed the line."
If convicted of the misdemeanor charge, Verdugo faces up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.
Verdugo, who graduated from El Rancho High School, has worked for the El Rancho Unified School District for 21 years, including four years as principal at the high school.
Michael Mayock, an attorney hired by the district to defend the principal, contends that the physical contact between the two men has been exaggerated. He questioned why Verdugo was not arrested at the time of confrontation.
Acosta said he pressed charges because he thinks that the attack could have been avoided if Verdugo had remained calm.
The discussion escalated, Acosta said, because the administrators refused to return the flyers and ordered him off campus. He admits to swearing at the principal.
Suddenly, Acosta said, the principal placed him in a headlock and wrestled him to the ground near the deputy's patrol car.
"I just wanted to get out of there," Acosta said. "He got me on the ground and he says, 'You're going to kiss the bottom of this (patrol) car.' "
Acosta said Verdugo then searched him, confiscated some stickers and a screwdriver. The principal then forced Acosta into the patrol car, and the deputy drove away, Acosta said.
Verdugo said the T-shirts on the flyers glamorized graffiti and violence because they depicted youths with spray paint or guns.
"I think I was responsible in doing my duties in maintaining a safe campus for my students."
Under state law, officials have the authority to order outsiders away from a campus or its sidewalks, school administrators said.
Verdugo said he also is concerned about the presence of outsiders near campus because of weapons they might be carrying. Administrators patrol the perimeter of the campus. There have been no shootings and no violence against students while he has been principal, he said.
He and other administrators have also discouraged the distribution of flyers to students because, he said, many promote underground parties where drinking is encouraged.
Verdugo has won the support of many students, parents and teachers, who think that the charges are overblown, said Marcia Hall, president of the El Rancho Federation of Teachers.
A member of the El Rancho High School PTA has gathered more than 200 signatures on petitions supporting the principal. Some teachers and parents have shown up at court hearings.
"He knows he has a lot of teachers' support, a lot of community support and a lot of student support," Hall said. "If he was a lousy person, no one would speak on his behalf."