BERKELEY (BCN) — Eight Berkeley Unified School District students filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit in federal court Wednesday alleging they were targets of racial targeting and intimidation by district officials.
The suit names several district employees, including Superintendent Donald Evans, district lawyer Marleen Sacks and all five members of the Board of Education, among others.
The suit claims that between Sept. 21 and Nov. 2 of this year, district staff pulled aside 21 students from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and Berkeley High School who are either current or former English
language development students of Yvette Felarca.
The students were asked about their immigration status, the languages they spoke at home, their political activities outside of school hours and their association with Felarca, according to the suit.
Felarca, a teacher at Martin Luther King, was placed on leave for six weeks by the district after a YouTube video surfaced of her attacking a demonstrator at a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento in June.
While she was on leave, the district “interrogated and intimidated” her students, either without notifying or inadequately notifying their parents, in an effort to “send a hostile message to immigrant and Latina/o students and parents that they would be targeted and driven out of BUSD if they acted against racism and defended immigrant rights,” according to the suit.
“This is connected to the district’s political witch hunt against me,” Felarca said. “They asked (the students) questions about their own political activities and beliefs and their families’ national origins, the languages that their families spoke and whether they had brothers and sisters who were born in the U.S. or not.”
Felarca is a member of the activist group By Any Means Necessary, a group that says it was formed to, in part, defend affirmative action, public education and immigrant rights.
She said the students’ lawsuit was critical in light of the city of Berkeley’s status as a sanctuary city that refuses to prosecute undocumented immigrants solely based on their immigration status.
“That status needs to mean something more than just words,” Felarca said. “We have to actively protect immigrant students and families.”
The suit seeks damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, violations of the students’ right to free speech and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution and racial discrimination, among other claims.
District officials haven’t had enough time to review the suit so they could not comment on its allegations Wednesday, according to BUSD spokesman Charles Burress.
Burress did provide an email statement reiterating the district’s policy of non-discrimination.
“The Berkeley Unified School District does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, religious creed, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, marital or parental status, ancestry, ethnic group identification, disability, medical condition, homelessness or foster status, in its programs and activities,” according to the statement.
The lawyers who filed the suit are members of the United for Equality and Affirmative Action Legal Defense Fund.