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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Commentary: School Board Makes It Right in Contrast to the City Council

As the issue of the Davis High School student gets resolved in a rapid and largely acceptable manner, it is easy to look back upon the arrest of 16-year-old Halema Buzayan in 2005 and wonder what if it had been resolved as quickly and amicably as this incident.

Few except those intimately involved in this situation realize that the chain of events that the Buzayan arrest on that June night now nearly two years ago was entirely avoidable. For Dr. Buzayan's first call was not to a lawyer, but rather to his elected representatives. His first move was to go before the Davis City Council and explain his situation. His first action was to file a formal complaint with the department. Somewhere between that point and now things went horribly wrong.

In retrospect it is easy to find faults in the manner in which this was handled by the police officer involved, the city, and the district attorney's office. No one quite understands the reason that Ms. Buzayan was arrested in her home for misdemeanor. No one quite understands the reason that Ms. Buzayan was taken to the police department rather than a probation officer at juvenile hall. No one quite understands the need to arrest anyone for alleged bumper damage to a car.

It was only when the process failed that Dr. Buzayan felt compelled to seek out legal counsel. It was only when his complaint was rejected that the Human Relations Commission felt compelled to create a civilian police review board. Had the process worked, none of these things would have happened.

Certainly no one understands why this situation was catastrophic enough to take down a City Manager, a Police Chief, and the City's Human Relations Commission. But just over a year later it had done exactly that.

And while publicly you still may hear some apologists for the department attempt to argue that things were handled correctly, no one when pressed in private is willing to do so.

Frankly, I have not spoken to a single police officer outside of the Davis Police Department who upon hearing about this case would have handled it as Officer Ly did. No one would have arrested the minor in her home. Some may have had her father bring her down to the police station. Most would have let it go after the damage was paid. Once the victim was made whole there was simply no compelling reason to pursue the case. That is the purpose of the law to begin with--to ensure that people own up to the responsibility of their actions. That was the judge's ruling as well.

I will not get into the further arguments here about the evidence that the vehicle the Buzayans drove did not strike the Wonhof vehicle (and if you saw the pictures, you would be very strongly convinced on this point). Nor will I get into the actions that occur after the decision to arrest Ms. Buzayan.

The bottom line here is that the decision was made by Officer Ly to arrest Ms. Buzayan and the decision was made by the Police Chief, City Council, and District Attorney's office to complicate matters by failing to hold the police officer responsible for his actions.

We flash forward now to an incident that we have been following involving the suspension of a Davis High School student that is very similar except it involves a teacher, the Vice Principal and the school district.

In my opinion, mistakes were made at several different levels in this case.

First, the teacher made the decision to pull down a Malcolm X poster. This is the teacher's prerogative and fully reasonable--even if we might quibble at this. However, the manner in which the teacher reportedly handled it was unacceptable. The correct action would be to inform the student that the teacher had concerns about the appropriateness of the poster in a math class. The course of action the teacher took was to publicly embarrass and berate a student and to proclaim their poster a "terrorist message."

Second, the student was asked to give a speech, the speech was approved, and then after the fact the Vice Principal determined that this student should be suspended for three days for giving the speech. The official text of this speech is available on this blog.

Now here is where history was changed. The school district's upper administration and school board were clearly not happy with the handling of this matter and likely did not believe the punishment was appropriate. So instead of digging in their heals and blindly backing the teacher and Vice Principal, they forced a resolution of the situation which resulted in the suspension being ended, the student going back to school and back to this class.

Additional efforts to rectify this situation may happen in the future, but the major point here is that the school board took a leadership role and resolved this situation likely without any legal action. Because of that there will be no lawsuit against the district. Furthermore, there will not be a slew of upper administrators who will lose their job--although this situation should be viewed as wake up call for the district to look at their on-site administrators and teachers and better structure how punishments should be doled out and for what reason.

Finally, this situation will likely fade away rapidly whereas the Buzayan case is going to federal court. Just yesterday, the federal court judge heard motions to dismiss the portion of the case that is against the Davis Enterprise. That judge will rule on that shortly. Judge refused to dismiss the portion of the case against the Davis Police Department or the District Attorney's Office. So that case will continue for at least another year or so, while the most recent case will soon be forgot.

The moral of this story is for public agencies to take responsibility early and it will avoid problems down the line. It is a lesson that the City Council needs to learn from the Davis Joint Unified School Board.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting