BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) - A Texas school district's police officer arrested a teacher for complaining that the principal used her forged signature to improve his niece's grades, the teacher claims in court.
Blanca Arizmendi sued Brownsville Independent School District, the BISD Police Department and its Sgt. Patrick Gabbert on Tuesday in Federal Court. They are the only parties to the lawsuit.
Arizmendi says in the complaint that principal Hector Hernandez knew that doctoring his niece's grades improved her chances of getting a $40,000 scholarship that the University of Texas gives to students who graduate in the top of their classes.
The state awards the scholarships to the top 10 students in each class, and the grade change put the principal's niece into the No. 2 spot, according to the complaint.
Parents Enrique and Dora Martinez expected academic excellence from their daughter, identified as A.M., so when Arizmendi gave her a "90 average" for a grading period during the 2012-2013 school year at Simon Rivera High School they resorted to bullying, Arizmendi says in the complaint.
Arizmendi has taught French for 29 years, seven of them at Rivera High School.
"The parents met with Ms. Arizmendi and they were very upset because they wanted a higher grade for their daughter. They wanted a grade of 100," the complaint states.
Arizmendi says the couple accused her of "not following a code" and reported her to Hernandez, who is related to Dora Martinez.
Hernandez hauled Arizmendi into a 90-minute meeting in May 2013 and "attempted to intimidate and coerce Ms. Arizmendi into changing his niece's grade," telling her "it was going to get ugly if she could not prove that his niece's assignment deserved a 90 and not 100," according to the complaint.
Arizmendi says she refused to give in, so the principal had his assistant, Rosa Ortiz, forge Arizmendi's name on a grade-change form and the school's data clerk changed A.M.'s grades.
"Ortiz took the grade-change form to Principal Hernandez, who then approved the grade change which ultimately consisted of a total of two grade changes, significantly raising the student's overall GPA placing her tied with the second highest GPA in her grade," the complaint states.
An anonymous school employee told a TV news reporter she overheard the data clerk say Ortiz had indeed forged Arizmendi's signature on the grade form, according to the complaint.
Angry and defiant, Arizmendi says, she complained about Hernandez in a memo to the district's human resources department and followed up with a grievance.
Sgt. Gabbert investigated and repeatedly asked her if she signed the grade-change form and if she gave a copy to the media, Arizmendi says.
"Between the months of August 2013 and December 2014, Detective Gabbert had campus computers and documents confiscated, he met with Ms. Arizmendi, along with other witnesses," the complaint states.
Arizmendi says she thought Gabbert considered her a witness, not a suspect, because he told her he had taken a statement from another teacher who resigned after Hernandez forced her to change A.M.'s grades.
She says that even after Gabbert took her and other school district employees to meet with the Cameron County district attorney about the grade changes in December 2013, she didn't think she was his target.
But Gabbert focused on Arizmendi throughout his investigation, which lasted from August 2013 to January 2015, which she realized when a signature sample she gave him came back inconclusive as to whether it matched the signature on the grade-change form and he told her he needed more samples, and "she was the only person that was being asked to give signature samples."
The inconclusive signature didn't shake Gabbert's focus.
"On January 5, 2015, Ms. Arizmendi was sent to the BISD Police Department at an administrator's request where she was arrested by Patrick Gabbert for making a false complaint. Detective Gabbert instructed Ms. Arizmendi to admit that she signed the grade change form," the lawsuit states.
Arizmendi claims Gabbert gave a magistrate judge a misleading affidavit that made no mention of Hernandez's history of strong-arming teachers to get a warrant for her arrest. She was booked into a city jail and released the same day without being arraigned before the magistrate, which Gabbert arranged so she would not learn from the judge why she was arrested, she says.
"Arizmendi's criminal charge of filing a false report was recommended for dismissal on June 30, 2015, by the Cameron County District Attorney's Office and was approved for dismissal by the honorable court for the reason that the statute of limitations had expired," the complaint states.
Arizmendi still works at Rivera High School, according to the school's website.
Hernandez is now the principal of another BISD high school, as shown on the district's website and confirmed in phone conversations Wednesday with district employees.
A district spokeswoman said, "These allegations were thoroughly investigated by the appropriate criminal and civil law enforcement authorities. The allegations were not substantiated. At this time, the Brownsville Independent School District has not been served with this lawsuit. The district does make it a practice not to comment on pending litigation."
Arizmendi seeks punitive damages for First and Fourth Amendment violations, false arrest and conspiracy.
She is represented by John Shergold with Hodge and Shergold in Brownsville.
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