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Judge’s ruling backs Laguna Beach student suspended over watermelon thrown at black classmate’s home

A shattered watermelon lies outside a Laguna Beach home Dec. 27, 2016.
(Courtesy of Cathleen Falsani)

An Orange County judge this week told the Laguna Beach Unified School District that it must comply immediately with an earlier order to remove a suspension from the record of a student who was disciplined in connection with a racially charged episode in which a watermelon was thrown at the home of a black classmate.

The judge, in response to a lawsuit filed by the student’s parents, had ordered the suspension removed from his record in October. But the school district, planning to appeal, had declined to carry out the order.

On Monday, the school district did file a notice of appeal, but during a hearing Thursday, Judge Ronald Bauer told the district to remove the suspension immediately, regardless of the status of its appeal, according to Mark Rosen, an attorney representing the student’s family.

An appeal typically keeps a judge’s decision from taking effect, but if that delay causes harm, the court can allow the judgment to be imposed. Rosen argued that a suspension on the student’s record could affect his chances of being accepted to college.

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The student, an 18-year-old Laguna Beach High School senior who is not identified in court records, was removed from school for three days in January.

“It affects this kid’s life. It’s pretty important,” Rosen said. “I’m surprised the district is fighting it so hard.”

The district did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment about Thursday’s hearing.

A statement from district officials Wednesday said their appeal is “based on the belief that the decision was wrong factually and legally, and an appellate court should, therefore, review it.”

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Maurice Possley and his wife, Cathleen Falsani, who are white, contended shortly after the Dec. 27, 2016, incident that their home was targeted because their adopted son, Vasco, then 17, is black.

Five students reportedly were present when, according to court records, one threw the watermelon and another yelled a racial epithet before the group drove away.

The student who was suspended has said he did not participate in the actions but was with the group at the time, according to court records.

The records don’t specify whether any other students were suspended, though others were “disciplined.”

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The suspended student’s family filed a lawsuit against the district in May, alleging that it acted improperly “to be politically correct and to try to appear to the community like the district was taking action.” They requested that the district remove the suspension from the student’s record, according to the filing.

On Oct. 6, Bauer ruled in favor of the student, saying there was no evidence that he had used a racial epithet, threw the watermelon or encouraged his classmates to do so.

“The court has concluded that no reasoned exercise of discretion can be applied to the known facts of student’s conduct in a manner that would justify the suspension that was imposed,” Bauer wrote in his ruling.

Bauer also disagreed with the district’s assertion that it has the ability to punish students for events occurring “at any time.” He said the California Education Code limits the time frame of a district’s authority related to discipline.

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In a statement, the district said the school board is concerned that the student’s attorneys and parents and the judge have “cast aside the significance of the act and the impact on the victim with arguments that the district was being politically correct and finding scapegoats.”

“The decisions of district staff and the board, from the discipline decision after the investigation through and including the decision to appeal, have been driven by our commitment to our students and our community,” board President Jan Vickers said in the release.

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN

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