Family claims discipline caused student suicide

CALIFORNIA — The family of a middle school student is alleging that the disciplinary action the school took on the student for leaving campus to attend an immigration rally violated his free speech rights and drove him to commit suicide.

Anthony Soltero, 14, left De Anza Middle School without permission on March 28, 2006, to protest an immigration reform bill and shot himself later that day after being disciplined at school, according to court documents. Although a federal district court has ruled that school officials including assistant principal Gene Bennett did not violate Soltero’s First Amendment rights and cannot be held responsible for his death, the student’s family has filed an appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the suicide is a result of the school’s overly harsh punishment and Bennett’s threats of incarceration.

Soltero and the two or three other students who were discovered leaving campus to attend the protest were lectured and prohibited from attending an end-of-the-year school trip. Soltero telephoned his mother to let her know about the infraction and punishment. When Soltero’s mother returned home, she found that her son had shot himself in the head with a rifle and left behind a suicide note stating that he had “to[o] many problems” and expressing contempt for Bennett, according to court documents. Soltero died in the hospital on April 1, 2006.

The Soltero family has argued that the school violated the student’s free speech rights and impelled him to commit suicide.

But U.S. District Court Judge Stephen G. Larson granted summary judgment in favor of the school May 21, deciding that the school’s duty of preventing “widespread walkouts” trumps the First Amendment.

Citing the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the decision reads that although students do not shed their constitutional rights upon “entering the schoolhouse gate,” the law “does not give a child license to exit the schoolhouse gate with neither permission or supervision.”

Larson also ruled that the school cannot be held culpable to the student’s death because there is no evidence that the punishment caused Soltero “serious mental distress,” even though the connection between the death and Bennett’s actions is “uncontroverted.”

Samuel Paz, the Soltero family’s attorney, confirmed Thursday that an appeal had been filed. Paz said the court’s decision to acknowledge that Soltero was exercising a First Amendment freedom but hold that it is not protected wrongfully implies that students do not possess First Amendment rights off-campus.

“This cannot be the law,” he said.

The Soltero family has also argued that the school violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by treating Soltero differently because of his Mexican ethnicity, though no evidence has been found to suggest that Soltero was discriminated against, the judge ruled.