Student claims Malibu High School English teacher slapped her in lawsuit against SMMUSD

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A former Malibu High School student who claims her teacher slapped her in front of classmates filed a lawsuit against the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District last week.

Dionne Evans, 15, alleges that ninth-grade English teacher Jennifer Gonzalez slapped her in the face multiple times in front of classmates on May 22 while referencing a scene from the movie “Bridesmaids.” Gonzalez was angry at Evans for forgetting a binder with her homework in it, Evans claims.

The suit, filed Monday, Sept. 17, in Los Angeles Superior Court, lists battery, assault, negligence, violation of civil rights and public school discrimination among several complaints. Gonzalez, former Malibu High Principal Mark Kelly and Malibu High School are also named as defendants in the case.

After the incident, Evans was “segregated” in the school library to avoid attending Gonzalez’s class, according to the lawsuit. Evans, the only African-American student in Gonzalez’s English class, suffered “great mental, physical and nervous pain.”

The suit further accuses administrators at Malibu High of discriminating against Evans by failing to reprimand Gonzalez and depriving Evans of equal treatment because of her race.

“Dionne has had to transfer to a new school and is still receiving treatment for the incident,” said Donald Karpel, Evans’ attorney.

But Daniel Kolodziej, Gonzalez’s attorney, said the teacher never struck Evans. Gonzalez said she was offering individual counseling to Evans for forgetting her notebook.

“In speaking with Ms. Evans, Ms. Gonzalez did not strike or slap Ms. Evans, or cause her any harm,” Kolodziej said in a statement to The Malibu Times. “Ms. Gonzalez regrets that Ms. Evans may have felt uncomfortable being addressed directly about not completing her work.”

The lawsuit accuses SMMUSD of creating a risk for students by employing Gonzalez despite an alleged history of physically striking students and an “explosive temper.”

Evans’ lawsuit cites a 1996 incident in which Gonzalez allegedly threw a soda bottle at a 16-year-old male Malibu High student and struck his genitals, according to court documents. The lawsuit says the student, Andre Lewandowski, collapsed onto the floor.

Kolodziej denied his client intentionally threw the soda bottle at Lewandowski. He said the student was taking part in a class talent competition and volunteered to rap in front of the class. Despite a warning that he could not curse, Lewandowski included a curse word in his performance, causing Gonzalez to “drop a bottle of soda in Andre’s lap out of shock,” Kolodziej said in a telephone interview.

According to the lawsuit, Lewandowski’s father filed a complaint with SMMUSD over the incident, but the district did not pursue any action against Gonzalez. Lewandowski remained in Gonzalez’s class for the next year and a half before transferring schools, according to Kolodziej.

“This is an effort by Karpel to dig up old and unfounded allegations,” Kolodziej said.

Karpel said the 1996 incident exemplifies Gonzalez’s history as a temperamental teacher.

“Since we had filed our initial claim, several students have come out of the woodwork to bring up past incidents,” Karpel said. “What she did [to Evans] is certainly a lot worse than what has happened in the past though.”

The incident involving Lewandowski is the only other specific altercation cited in the lawsuit.

Gonzalez wrote a letter of apology to Evans the day after the alleged assault, saying that she did not mean to cause the student embarrassment.

“I was trying to reach out to you, and help you focus on your schoolwork and motivate you,” Gonzalez wrote. “Even though my intentions were honorable, they did not come out that way and for that I am very sorry.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department conducted an investigation after the incident and decided not to pursue criminal charges.

The lawsuit does not seek a specific amount for the alleged damages, but SMMUSD rejected a claim for $1 million in damages filed by Evans in June. California law requires a person to file a claim against a public entity or government employee within six months of the incident before filing a lawsuit.

SMMUSD Supt. Sandra Lyon said she could not comment on pending litigation.

Gonzalez was briefly put on leave directly after the incident but remains at Malibu High as a ninth- and 12th-grade English teacher for the 2012 -2013 school year.

“Ms. Gonzalez remains where she belongs—in her classroom—and looks forward to many more years serving the public as an inspired and passionate educator,” Kolodziej said.