A Southern California woman may be ousted from her city leadership post for allegedly vandalizing a classroom after losing a political fight against the so-called parent trigger law.
Lori Yuan, who chairs the planning commission in the Mojave Desert city of Adelanto, Calif., joined fellow parent Chrissy Guzman in leading the opposition to a campaign to convert Desert Trails Elementary School into a charter school using California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010. The controversial law, now on the books in seven states and under consideration in many others, enables a majority of parents at a low-performing school to force a major overhaul through a petition campaign.
Ultimately the two women failed to block the campaign in Adelanto, and last spring Desert Trails became the first parent-trigger success in the nation.
Now, Yuan and Guzman face felony charges for allegedly causing nearly $7,700 worth of damage to a Desert Trails classroom last summer — by splattering the carpet, walls and windows with ketchup, mustard and paint. Both Yuan, 40, and Guzman, 35, have pleaded not guilty. The women told police they got “carried away” while disposing of old art supplies in the PTA meeting room on June 25, days before the new charter operator took over the neighborhood school.
The San Bernardino County District Attorney charged the women on Nov. 27, and they’re due back in court for a procedural hearing in early March.
Adelanto Mayor Pro Tem Steve Baisden, who appointed Yuan to the city post, said Wednesday he is requesting that an item be placed on the City Council’s Feb. 26 agenda to discuss removing Yuan from the commission. Baisden said his final decision hinges on the outcome of the vandalism case.
Deputy District Attorney Joel Buckingham said Monday in Victorville Superior Court that the case may be resolved outside the courtroom in the coming weeks. The felony charges carry a maximum sentence of up to three years in county jail and up to a $10,000 fine.
It’s unclear what kind of deal might be reached, but it’s unlikely the women will face much time behind bars even if convicted. The case comes amid the implementation of California’s prison realignment plan, which includes alternative sentencing for low-risk offenders as part of a court-mandated effort to reduce prison overcrowding.
Both women have declined to comment during the litigation based on the advice of their attorneys. The defense attorneys claim the charges were filed only because of the high-profile and contentious backdrop of the parent-trigger campaign.
“These are two wonderful human beings. They have never been in trouble before, and I don’t think these women had any ill intent at any time,” said Daniel Greenberg, the Riverside, Calif.-based criminal defense attorney representing Yuan. “If it wasn’t this heated environment in which people on both sides of the issue feel very strongly about their positions, this would have been something handled internally and never entered the criminal justice system.”
The women said they were shocked the district called the sheriff’s department; they never meant to cause serious damage and had planned on cleaning everything up when they returned to the classroom the next morning, according to the police report filed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Victor Valley station. Indeed, the women had been cleaning for about 30 minutes on the morning of June 26 when the sheriff’s officer responded to the incident.
“Vandalism usually isn’t charged when someone makes a mess and then they return to clean it up,” said Graham Donath, the Riverside-based attorney representing Guzman. “Based on having handled hundreds and hundreds of vandalism cases, this seems to have been blown significantly out of proportion at this point in time. It falls far, far outside the norm in what would ever happen in a case of this nature.”
Shortly after the Desert Trails Parents Union unveiled its parent-trigger campaign in January 2012, Yuan and Guzman launched a “Save Desert Trails” campaign urging parents to rescind their signatures. They argued some parents felt tricked into signing the petition, and questioned the political and financial motives of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit helping to run and fund the trigger campaign. The bitter battle dragged on for nearly two years, with each side accusing the other of intimidation and harassment.
“The trigger law is a way for billionaires to funnel money from schools into their own pockets,” Guzman told the sheriff’s officer who questioned her about the vandalism incident, according to his report. She said, “There has been a war going on with the Desert Trails school and the charter organization.”
The trigger campaign scored a key court victory in July 2012, when a judge decided the district could not allow parents to withdraw their signatures once the petition had been filed. The school board approved a new charter operator in January 2013, and Desert Trails reopened under charter management in late July. A majority of the former students stayed through the transition, but the school has all new faculty, as none of the former teachers chose to apply for non-unionized jobs there.
Parent Revolution has questioned why it took nearly six months to file the charges against Yuan and Guzman.
“They vandalized a school as a political protest,” said Ben Austin, the former Clinton White House official who founded Parent Revolution. “That’s simply not legal, and so they should pay the price for it.”
School district officials say they’ve treated the case the same as any other vandalism incident, and aren’t surprised it has taken several months to move through the backlogged court system.
As a possible settlement takes shape, Yuan’s attorney pointed out that he has evidence to show there was already a mess in the PTA room before the incident with the condiments and paint.
“The District Attorney has some photographs of the alleged damage, and we have some photographs that were taken when they first came in to clean up the classroom, and remarkably there’s a similarity between the two,” Greenberg said.
Adelanto School District Superintendent Lily DeBlieux said she has not yet been approached by prosecutors to discuss a potential settlement, and that any such decisions would first be vetted by the school board.
Yuan and Guzman are set to return to court on March 10.