A judge soon is expected to decide whether a lawsuit filed by the mother of a black teen who committed suicide after receiving discipline at Modesto schools will go forward in federal court.
Doneisha Neil, 15, swallowed a lethal amount of allergy medication in February 2015, one day after learning of the last of three punishments at Beyer and Downey high schools, which she felt were unfair. School administrators "believed she was a lesbian student of color who should not be permitted to pursue sports activities on campus," says a civil rights lawsuit filed by her mother, Latisha Cyprian.
Administrators failed to obtain Neil's side of the story before suspending and expelling her from Beyer and before suspending her from Downey, as required by law, and they did little to get her counseling despite knowing she was suicidal, court documents say.
Defense attorneys contend the discipline was appropriate and had nothing to do with her race or sexual orientation. The lawsuit is "based upon nothing but baseless speculation," reads a briefing.
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Neil was an honor student and the only girl on Beyer's freshman football team and boys wrestling team, the lawsuit says. She and two other black students were suspended after an altercation that involved white students vandalizing lockers, the lawsuit says. One of the white students used a gay slur against her, and none of them was disciplined, it says.
Neil's notice of suspension said she pushed the girl who called her the name, while the lawsuit contends "there was no physical contact between any of the students involved." The suspension notice also said Neil, confronted by an administrator, threatened to beat up the other girl, cursed at the administrator and left campus.
While Neil served the suspension, the other girl told administrators Neil "was sexually harassing the Caucasian student by offering to rub the Caucasian student's feet," and Neil had sent her a threatening text. Neil then was "unconstitutionally removed from school for the second time" without being given a chance to defend herself, the lawsuit says.
A few weeks later, Neil told her mother she was proud of herself for fleeing from a fight at Downey, the lawsuit says. School administrators then informed her mother that the girl would be suspended for involvement in the fight.
"Doneisha was confused, upset and crushed by the news," feeling that "no matter how hard she tried, she was still a target of unjustified discipline," the lawsuit says. Fearing her dream of college scholarships was slipping away, she took her life the next day, the document says. A suicide note cited despair at the discipline, police said.
The lawsuit asks that Modesto City Schools adopt policies "for handling disciplinary practices of African-American students" and make sure school officials are trained in "proper tactics ... for handling school disciplinary practices." The judge should order that the Modesto-based nonprofit Advocates for Justice monitor the district's compliance, the lawsuit says.
The complaint initially was filed in February, and Cyprian's attorney has submitted three subsequent versions since. The latest does not list Modesto City Schools or the district's individual board members as defendants, although a subsequent briefing added them back in, and five administrators at Beyer and Downey appear in all versions.
Attorneys for the five administrators, in a document filed Dec. 14, called plaintiff's pleadings "a hodgepodge of due process and equal protection theories, supported by speculation and conclusory allegations." The fourth version of the lawsuit "is entirely devoid of any actual facts suggesting that Ms. Neil's race, gender or sexual orientation had any effect whatsoever on the discipline imposed," defense attorneys said.
A school official heard from Neil's friend that she had talked of suicide, and "second-hand knowledge of one remark concerning suicide does not establish an unusually serious risk of harm," defense attorneys said. School administrators "did exactly what was required (after a fight) in that they confronted Ms. Neil with the allegations against her and gave her (or her mother) a chance to explain them," the latest document says.
Also, school officials contend Neil was not expelled from Beyer, saying an assistant principal had persuaded her mother to voluntarily transfer Neil to Downey.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill is expected soon to rule on the defense's request to throw out the lawsuit.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390