SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Just days before closing arguments in a state court trial over the future of City College of San Francisco, student protestors have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that claims police "brutalized" them at a demonstration they say was aimed at saving the school.
Officers from San Francisco and the City College broke bones and crushed First Amendment expression, the protestors claim in the Dec. 2 federal lawsuit.
Protesters in March rallied to call for the resignation of Robert Agrella, who was appointed last year as the special trustee of the beleaguered community college, with a brief to turn the school around.
The students also protested a new tuition policy that makes them pay their fees up front and in full. Beginning with fall semester this year, students who registered or added classes had to pay the fees about a month before the start of class or set up a payment plan, or be dropped from the class roster.
A glance at the City College website shows that fees for California residents are $46 per semester unit, with most academic classes worth 3 units. Add in sundry fees and the cost of a four-class semester runs around $600. Out-of-state students pay more than $3,000 for the same course load.
In July 2012, the California-based Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges put the school on notice to show marked improvement in its staffing decisions and financial management, or prepare for closure.
In 2013, saying it was dissatisfied with the school's progress, the commission decided to terminate the college's accreditation.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera promptly filed for an injunction, which was granted and has kept the school open until a trial can weigh his claims that political bias drove the decision to shutter the school.
Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow, who is presiding over the bench trial, will hear closing arguments next week over Herrera's claims that the commission was driven by a legislative and philosophical debate with City College over the purpose of California community colleges.
The new lawsuit claims that the trouble started when plaintiff students Otto Pippenger and Dimitrios Philliou tried to enter Conlan Hall on the school's main campus.
They say the building was open, with students and faculty inside, but police officers "responded with violence, shoving and hitting numerous students without cause."
The police presence included two San Francisco Police Department officers and at least six community college cops.
"At no time did Otto or Dimitrios present a threat or do anything to justify the
force that defendants used on them," the complaint states.
Nonetheless, San Francisco Community College District Sgt. Carlos Gayton repeatedly hit Pippenger, breaking his wrists, the lawsuit claims.
San Francisco police Officer Oliver Lim "slammed Otto to the ground and punched Otto in the back of the head as he lay on the floor, causing a concussion," the complaint says. A group of cops then carried him upstairs "by his fractured wrists."
As a result, Pippenger claims, he suffered "a serious concussion and post concussion syndrome, fractures to both wrists, bruises, and post-traumatic stress disorder."
The lawsuit continues: "These injuries changed Otto's life. Over the next several months, he suffered from vomiting, severe headaches, visual disturbances, nightmares and sleep disturbances, flashbacks, fatigue, difficulty reading, difficulty concentrating, fear and anxiety, pain, and limited use of his wrists."
His schoolwork has suffered, and though his cognitive function has improved, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and wrist pain, according to the lawsuit.
Philliou claims he was roughed up, too. He says that the protest had actually died down when he was slammed to the ground by a pair of cops, who choked him and knelt on a leg that was on the mend after knee surgery.
His eyes were pepper-sprayed at close range, causing "excruciating pain," after which, a police sergeant "applied water to Dimitrios' face in such a way as to spread the pepper spray all over his body including his genital area, causing him further pain."
Pippenger and Philliou say they were then arrested without probable cause and taken to jail, where they were held overnight.
They claims that City College Chancellor Arthur Tyler lied to explain away the brutality, "falsely stating that the students had engaged in 'violent outbursts', that one of the plaintiffs 'was found hiding in a restroom' and 'threatened officers', and that one of the plaintiffs 'was witnessed striking an SFPD police officer'. None of this was true."
Named as plaintiffs along with Pippenger and Philliou is a student, faculty and staff group called the Save CCSF Coalition.
They seek punitive damages for constitutional violations.
They are represented by Rachel Lederman.