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Suit says Pasadena principal threatened to call ICE on parent, guardian

A parent and a guardian of students at Madison Elementary School in Pasadena have filed a lawsuit, saying the then-principal of the school allegedly threatened to report them to immigration officials.
A parent and a guardian of students at Madison Elementary School in Pasadena have filed a lawsuit, saying the then-principal of the school allegedly threatened to report them to immigration officials.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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A parent and a guardian of students at a Pasadena elementary school have sued school district officials alleging the then-school principal threatened to report them to immigration authorities two years ago on separate occasions. 

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday on behalf of the plaintiffs by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, also alleges that after one plaintiff filed a complaint with the school district, the case was handed over to the same principal. The complaint was not resolved, the suit claims.

Former Madison Elementary School principal Juan Ruelas and other district employees and officials are named in the lawsuit. A Pasadena Unified School District spokeswoman declined to comment on the court case, saying the district had not yet received the suit.

Ruelas did not return phone calls. He took another position within the district this year, following other controversies at the school, including allegations he directed a cheating scheme to raise students' scores and had yelled at a teacher, who complained to district human relations officials.

The incidents described in the lawsuit allegedly occurred around late August 2015. According to the suit, guardian Eva Del Rio in one instance was attempting to drop off the child she cares for at a Madison Elementary school entrance.

"When she knocked on the closed entrance door, Defendant Ruelas opened the door and threatened Plaintiff Del Rio that he would report her to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE")  if she ever knocked on the entrance door again," the lawsuit reads.

Del Rio, who babysits the child, said there were other parents there when she arrived at school that day who said they were upset because they had been similarly threatened. 

"He said he was going to put immigration on us — can you imagine how that feels?" said Del Rio, who spoke by phone in Spanish.  "People were crying. I felt bad. I have papers, but I felt bad. I felt humiliated." 

Del Rio said she is a legal U.S. resident and has lived in the country for many years.

The suit also describes a separate incident in which a "Plaintiff Jane Doe" met with the principal to complain about a school lunch policy. She said she planned to file a complaint with the district if her concern was not addressed.

"In response, Defendant Ruelas threatened to send ICE to Madison Elementary School if Plaintiff Jane Doe filed a complaint against him with the PUSD, laughed at her, then walked away," the lawsuit states.

The plaintiff did file a formal complaint with the district alleging "race-based discrimination," according to the lawsuit, but she was later informed by letter that her complaint "did not fall within coverage of the Uniform Complaint Procedures," and that her complaint had been referred to Ruelas.

"Due process in any circumstance would really direct that you not put the decision-making in the hands of the person who is the target of the complaint," said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF's president and general counsel.

During a subsequent meeting with Ruelas and another district staffer, the lawsuit alleges, the staffer asserted to the plaintiff that Ruelas had made no immigration-related threats and that "Defendant Ruelas could take action" against her.