Los Angeles, CA – The Pasadena Unified School District failed to carry out its obligation under state law to investigate a complaint that an elementary school principal threatened to report an individual to immigration authorities, according to a lawsuit filed today.
The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) on behalf of a parent and caretaker, alleges that Juan Ruelas, the former principal of Madison Elementary School in Pasadena, attempted to intimidate the women, and sought to prevent one of them from filing complaints about his threats. Ruelas’s behavior was reported to the Pasadena Unified School District, which failed to comply with state laws requiring investigations into all charges of racial discrimination by denying the claims and further violated the plaintiffs’ rights by reporting their identities to Ruelas.
“In this 35th anniversary year of Plyler v. Doe, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the right of undocumented students to a public education, it is shocking that an administrator in California would try to intimidate any parent with a threat of immigration enforcement,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “Such conduct is plainly unlawful, and the parent and caregiver who have stepped forward to challenge the threats are righteous defenders of all other immigrant parents throughout California.”
In one case, according to the lawsuit, Ruelas threatened to call immigration authorities to investigate a caretaker who had angered him by knocking on the door of a school entrance that Ruelas had ordered closed. The caretaker, Eva Del Rio, was unaware that Ruelas had restricted access to the school to a single entrance. Del Rio, a legal resident of the United States, said Ruelas warned that he would call immigration authorities if she knocked on the door again.
The threats against the parent who has been in the U.S. for 19 years, stemmed from a meeting she had with Ruelas in August 2015 to complain that school staff were taking away and discarding her daughter’s meals during lunch before she was finished eating. In response, the lawsuit alleges, Ruelas mocked her and threatened to report her to immigration authorities if she were to file a complaint with the school district.
The parent reported Ruelas’ threat to the school board during the public comment period of a board meeting, and five days later filed a formal written complaint with the district alleging race-based discrimination. Rather than investigate the allegation, as required under state law and district procedures, the district reported the complaint back to Ruelas, who retaliated, blocking the parent from volunteering at the school, which she had done for several years without incident.
The lawsuit also names a school aide as a defendant for pointing out the parent in public at a school board meeting and saying that the parent should be reported to immigration authorities. The school board made no effort to address that statement, the lawsuit alleges.
“It is very troubling that, though predominantly Latino in its student population, Pasadena Unified School District repeatedly rejected opportunities to stand behind its Latino families and community by, at best, blinding itself to an administrator making illegal race-based immigration threats,” said Juan Rodriguez, a staff attorney with MALDEF.
In addition to Ruelas, who is now director of the district’s language assessment and development department, and Reina, the lawsuit names as defendants the Pasadena Unified School District; its superintendent, Brian McDonald; and school board members Elizabeth Pomeroy, Scott Phelps, Patrick Calahan, Kimberly Kenne, Roy Boulghourjian, and Lawrence Torres. It seeks damages, along with declaratory and injunctive relief for denial of civil rights and due process, among other violations.
Read the lawsuit here.