Problems between teachers and students are as old as Aristotle, but in this affluent South County community, the conflict has taken on a distinct 1990s spin.
In a dispute that combines religious symbolism with a long-running local drama, a high school teacher claims to be taking a stand for his colleagues’ right to discipline students without fear of retaliation.
The Mission Viejo High School teacher, Terry Sheppard, might end up fighting a solitary battle against the student, who claims he is protecting his constitutional right to free expression.
“I’m afraid this thing won’t go away,” said Sheppard, 48. “I would be much happier if it were over. It’s an incredible distraction; it’s taking quite a toll. But I refuse to give in.”
“We’re in it until we win,” said Tamera Carlucci, the student’s mother.
It all began innocently enough, when Jeremy Carlucci enrolled in Sheppard’s prestigious Communication Arts and Technology Academy at Mission Viejo High for the 1991-92 academic year.
To hear Sheppard tell it, Carlucci posed an immediate problem. Strong-willed and defiant, the boy often showed up late, Sheppard said. During his second year in the class last October, Carlucci suddenly got up and left one day, Sheppard said.
The teacher referred the matter to the school’s academic dean, who sentenced Carlucci to three days of study hall--a penalty known as an in-house suspension. Soon afterward, Carlucci transferred to El Toro High School, where he hopes to graduate next month.
Carlucci, 18, who plans to enlist in the Air Force in July, tells a different story, one he is backing up with lawyers who will make their arguments during an Orange County Superior Court trial scheduled for August.
Last November, Carlucci filed suit against Sheppard, accusing him of violating his constitutional liberties. Carlucci says the entire affair stems from his decision to wear the school’s original mascot design--a fierce red devil, complete with horns--on his varsity letter jacket, and of Sheppard’s opposition.
Eight years ago, after pressure from conservative Christian parents who had campaigned against it, the original design was officially banned at the school, whose problems with the Diablo logo have taken on biblical ramifications.
Sources close to the case say the Carlucci family wants $15,000 from the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, which, they say, is inclined to pay at least a third of that sum to rid itself of the lawsuit. The suit names the school principal, the school district and the entire school board as co-defendants.
Richard C. Gilbert, the Carlucci family attorney, said that $15,000 is “within $2,000" of the money his clients are seeking, excluding legal costs.
But Sheppard refuses to go along. “I did nothing wrong. Nothing,” he said, noting that he has hired a lawyer at $200 an hour, intending not to be a party to any out-of-court settlement.
“I fear I’m at the heart of a national trend,” Sheppard added. “Students and parents using violence or litigation to get back at teachers in otherwise menial disputes. It’s ridiculous and disgusting.”
Patsy Barry, the school’s representative to the Saddleback Valley Educators’ Assn., said Sheppard’s fellow teachers are appalled at the suit, which she labeled frivolous.
“Here was a teacher doing his job by the book,” Barry said, adding that if the district fails to pay Sheppard’s legal fees, state and national teachers’ groups can be expected to do so. “This lawsuit has its own hidden agenda. It’s tied into the fact that a small group of parents won’t let the issue of this Diablo mascot die. And it’s stupid.”
Lynn Ohman, director of legal services for the National Education Assn., said her office has seen an increase in lawsuits of all kinds against teachers.
“We’re seeing these types of cases all over the country,” including a 10% increase in cases involving allegations of sexual misconduct.
Sheppard says he was told by the school district’s attorney that, should he reject a settlement and go his own way, “my legal defense would not be covered . . . I would bear the cost entirely.”
Attorneys for the district could not be reached for comment. Gilbert, Carlucci’s attorney, said Sheppard’s rejection of a potential settlement would mean nothing, calling it “a moot point.” Once his client is paid, Gilbert said, the Carluccis would consider the matter closed, and any lingering issue would be between Sheppard and his employer.
Carlucci claims Sheppard suppressed his freedom of speech and expression by sending him to the school principal and the wrestling coach “for a scolding” solely because he wore “the traditional school mascot on his clothing,” the lawsuit says.
According to Carlucci’s lawsuit, Sheppard “restricted, prevented, deprived and denied (Carlucci) of his right to free speech and freedom of expression, guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
Further complicating the issue is the fact that Sheppard is an outspoken Christian. But with a gray beard punctuated by a mane of salt-and-pepper hair knotted in a trendy pony tail, he hardly fits the stereotype of an evangelist, or, for that matter, a teacher.
He says he doesn’t belong to any religious group or even a church, but “my personal point of view is that the devil is a religious symbol. And if there is separation between church and state, why should this Judeo-Christian symbol be allowed any more than Moses, Christ on a crucifix or the Star of David?”
Sheppard, who supervised a student election in which a whimsical, or benign, imp-like devil was voted in to replace the fierce devil as the school’s official logo, had asked Carlucci to explain the reappearance of the former mascot on his lapel. Parents who favor the design have refused to let it die, and the student election seems--in some ways--to have made matters worse.
Sheppard concedes that, a few days before Carlucci left class, they clashed bitterly over the design on his $199 letter jacket. He acknowledges sending Carlucci to the office of Principal Bob Metz, who told Carlucci he could wear anything he wanted as long as it steered clear of symbols relating to alcohol, drugs or gangs.
Metz granted his permission even though the fierce devil was no longer part of the school’s nomenclature, Sheppard said.
In the suit, Carlucci claims that Sheppard and other school officials “unlawfully reduced the grades of students” and “threatened to reduce (Carlucci’s) grades” if he failed to comply with the school’s “unlawful censorship policies.”
Sheppard adamantly denies making any threats and says his problems with Carlucci had, in fact, “nothing to do” with a devil design, fierce or otherwise.
“I believe the devil issue was just a smoke screen and that I was, in fact, set up,” Sheppard said. “I have many students who have demonic depictions on clothing and who prefer the fierce devil (design) and I’ve had no problems with any of them.”
Sheppard believes Carlucci was being influenced by a vocal coalition that still objects to the exorcism of the fierce devil.
But Tamera Carlucci, 36, the student’s mother and a co-plaintiff in the case, says the fierce devil is not only at the heart of the lawsuit but at the core of Sheppard’s difficulties with her son.
“Jeremy was called down in front of (Sheppard’s) class,” she said. “He was yelled at, humiliated and sent to the principal’s office solely because of the devil on his jacket. He was then accosted again when he came back to class from the principal’s office.”
Carlucci’s mother concedes that Jeremy erred in leaving class abruptly, but denied Sheppard’s claim that her son posed a discipline problem throughout 1991-92. She says he left Sheppard’s fifth-period class--his last of the day--in a hurry to get to the school’s automotive shop to have his car repaired.
“He never had a single tardy!” she said. “And his attendance record was perfect from the beginning of (1991-92) to when he left class early,” in October, 1993.
Principal Metz declined to discuss Carlucci’s record or any other aspect of the case, referring all questions to the district’s attorneys.
Tamera Carlucci says her son decided to transfer because he found Sheppard inflexible. She says she viewed the teacher’s demand that Jeremy be placed under a strict behavioral contract as “unthinkable.” The conflict posed a dilemma for Carlucci, his mother said, because Sheppard’s class is the only one at the school that offers training in television production, a career he would like to pursue.
Sources close to the case say the school has offered $5,000 to settle the case, which leaves Sheppard stewing in anger.
“If the district could settle this for (Carlucci’s) attorney’s fees, then as far as I’m concerned, the issue should die,” he said. “But if even one penny goes to Jeremy Carlucci, I feel a serious wrong has been committed here. I would then be compelled to take a stand for every classroom teacher in America.
“It’s too late for me as an educator to make a difference in the life of Jeremy Carlucci, but I have plenty of other students. I don’t want them to believe that you can do anything you want, then turn around and make false allegations and misuse the justice system to make money.
“It’s extortion, pure and simple, and I won’t have it,” he said. “How can I possibly accept that? How could I live with myself?”