Officials Remove 2 From School Because Father Is Seen as Threat
School officials in Santa Clara, Calif., have removed two sisters from their elementary school because police advised them that the girls' father, a fugitive who allegedly murdered their half-brother in January, is a threat to them and their classmates.
School officials say the situation is especially vexing because it pits the girls' right to an education against their responsibility to insure the school community's safety.
Local police maintain that the girls' father, Rafael Toscano, is "armed and dangerous'' and may still be in the region.
The girls' mother, Marinela Toscano, however, believes her husband is in Mexico and no longer poses a danger, despite his alleged threat to harm her and kidnap the girls.
According to Ms. Toscano's lawyer, Esau Herrera, she wants her daughters, 10-year-old Angelica and 7-year-old Veronica, back in classes at George Mayne Elementary School in Alviso.
In early April, officials assigned the girls to an independent-study program. They have had weekly meetings with a teacher--soon to be expanded to daily lessons--and complete packets of assignments on their own.
However, Mr. Herrera said the impoverished family has none of the resources of a school--not even a dictionary. The girls, he said, are being denied contact with other students and access to the enrichment of such events as field trips.
"Education does not simply occur in the confines of the classroom,'' said Mr. Herrera, who is also an elected school board member in neighboring San Jose.
Mr. Herrera said last week he will file a lawsuit against the district unless he is satisfied with the outcome of a meeting this week with school officials.
Ms. Toscano "feels it is completely unjust that her daughters have been denied an education, completely unfair that her daughters have not violated one regulation ... yet they cannot walk onto school grounds,'' Mr. Herrera said.
Stockton Killings Recalled
Eugene Unger, Santa Clara's assistant superintendent for educational services, said last week that while he understands the family's desire for the girls to return to school, the district has to think about the safety of the school community.
"Here we have someone who is violent, who is out there--we don't know where--and he has threatened to come and to kidnap these girls,'' Mr. Unger said. "And to me that puts the school at a terrible risk.''
"If we could get some confirmation that this fellow is not coming back,'' he added, "we'd have those girls back in school in a minute.''
Mr. Unger said the memory of the slaughter four years ago of five pupils and the injury of 29 other students and a teacher at the hands of a lone gunman at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif., has weighed heavily on the minds of officials. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1989.)
But Mr. Herrera, the Toscanos' lawyer, said, "Do we deny the ... legal right of education based on potential, unforeseen, unpredictable events? Is this the correct way to balance competing interests?'' he asked. "I say no.''
He said the girls should be returned to their school under increased security provided either by the district or local police.
The fear of harm to the girls is legitimate, according to police.
"We consider him a very viable threat,'' Sgt. John Lax of the San Jose police department said of Mr. Toscano. "The problem is, we don't know where he is.''
Mr. Toscano reportedly fled the country after allegedly fatally shooting his stepson, Larry Ochoa, 17, at the Toscano home in January, Sergeant Lax said. Larry Ochoa also was a student in the Santa Clara school district.
Sergeant Lax said his department is trying to obtain a Mexican arrest warrant for Mr. Toscano.
Mr. Unger, the assistant superintendent, said school staff members are concerned about Mr. Toscano's alleged crime.
Following the murder of Larry Ochoa, the school adopted safety precautions including a bell code that would signal teachers to lock doors and put the sisters in a safe place until relatives arrived to pick them up.
On April 7, Mr. Unger and Sergeant Lax said, the school activated the plan when Ms. Toscano called the school and said a telephone call from her husband made her believe he was in the area and was coming for the girls.
Following the school's spring break in April, Ms. Toscano told officials she wanted the girls returned to school.
But, Mr. Unger said, "The police were very strong [in saying] that it was not safe.''
He said the district has done its best to comply with Ms. Toscano's requests, including increasing the girls' weekly contact with teachers from two to 12 hours and providing them with a psychologist at least once a week.
Education-law experts contacted last week tended to be critical of the district's response to the situation.
"If they were going to be fair about this, they should screen every child for some potential crazy relative,'' said Martha Matthews, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based National Center for Youth Law.
Robert Pressman, a lawyer with the Center for Law and Education in Cambridge, Mass., said he thought the school district's actions were "patently unlawful.''
"I've never seen in any compulsory-attendance law a qualification in terms of a parent having committed a criminal offense,'' he said.
"The school officials are operating ultra vires--beyond their
authority,'' he said.