In a school discrimination case that could set a precedent for beleaguered parents across the country frustrated with Critical Race Theory-related issues in the classroom, a California woman is set to file suit against her child’s school district after her 7-year-old daughter was punished and humiliated for drawing a Black Lives Matter picture for her friends that also included the sentiment that “any lives” matter. In addition, the school never informed her about the incident or the punishment; she only learned about it after another parent mentioned it to her a year later.
Chelsea Boyle’s daughter, “Jane” (we have changed the name to protect the privacy of the student) was a first-grader at Viejo Elementary School in Mission Viejo, CA, an Orange County suburb nestled about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. At the time of the incident, Black Lives Matter rhetoric could be seen and heard everywhere, from the news to professional sports and even in the classroom. Jane, who is white, decided to draw a picture of her friends, who spanned the racial diaspora at the diverse elementary school that offers a unique “two-way language immersion” program in Spanish/English.
The picture was meant to represent her closest friends of all different races, and in her uneven, first-grader scrawl, she wrote “Black Lives mater [sic]” at the top, followed by another sentiment, “any lives.” The picture went home with one of Jane’s friends.
That is where the trouble started for the 7-year-old and her family.
I sat down with Boyle and her lawyer, Alexander Haberbush of the LexRex Institute, just before the July 4th weekend to record her story and find out just how serious the case had become.
According to Boyle, when the parents of Jane’s friend saw the drawing, they called the school to complain, deeming it offensive to their family. Viejo Elementary School principal Jesus Becerra then, allegedly, sought out Jane to question her about the drawing. Jane was forced to apologize to her friend for drawing the picture…but not privately. Jane had to deliver the apology on the playground in front of her fellow students and school staff. On top of the apology, Jane was “benched” as punishment, meaning she had her recess time revoked and was forced to sit on a bench while her classmates played during their free time.
In an even more infuriating turn of events, Boyle says she wasn’t notified of the incident by school officials. It was not until nearly a year later, in March of 2022, that she heard about the issue from someone who was a mutual friend of both Boyle and the offended family. All of this had happened without her knowledge, even though Boyle was heavily involved in school activities and volunteered hundreds of hours in the classroom and for school events. She had been kept in the dark, and Jane, not fully understanding what had happened or what she had done wrong, had kept the incident to herself.
Boyle said she was shocked to learn what had happened.
My immediate reaction is just…I feel like I got hit by a bus, but I didn’t understand it. And I thought, oh, you know, my daughter has just been discriminated against. And I didn’t even want to contact a lawyer, but I just didn’t know what had happened to us.
When she talked to her daughter, it became clear that Jane had no idea why she had been punished for the picture. Boyle says her family does not engage in discussions about specific Black Lives Matter issues or other political topics at the moment because her family is still so young. She says Jane came up with the picture and phrasing on her own, with perfectly innocent intentions, so not only did the punishment seem unwarranted to Boyle, it seemed cruel.
And then when I talked to my daughter — I think she said it was so sad. And and I said, “Well, what did the principal say to you?” and [she said] “I can’t draw pictures anymore. And I can’t write those words.” And I said, “Why did you write [those words]?”
I don’t teach [about] Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, [or] anything in my house because I think my children are too young [for politics]. My children see color as a color, as a description. I am trying to raise them the way the world should be, not the way it is. That’s how I’m trying to make my personal change. [H]er best friend is brown — not black, but brown — and she didn’t understand why she didn’t matter, why her friend didn’t matter. She has another friend that is Japanese; she doesn’t understand.
It wasn’t “all lives matter,” it was “any life.” It was something she came up on her own. She just didn’t understand it. It was completely innocent, and that broke my heart.
Boyle says the most concerning part of what she felt was an unwarranted punishment was its effect on Jane’s desire to draw. Jane is challenged with ADHD, and drawing has been her biggest and most therapeutic outlet. She had wondered why her artistic 7-year-old had suddenly stopped drawing when previously it was hard to find her without a marker or crayon in her hands. As it turned out, as a part of Jane’s punishment, Principal Becerra allegedly instructed Jane to refrain from drawing any more pictures for her friends at school.
Boyle was heartbroken and immediately reached out to Becerra and other district officials to register her disappointment and try to find some clarity. She says, admittedly she was a bit frenzied.
[I sent] my super angry, all caps email. Within 24 hours, nobody got back to me. So I sent another email, a lot more well-thought-out, took my time, and I said, “Listen, this is what I want. I want a formal apology to me, I want a formal apology to my daughter, and I want a formal apology to this other family, because they didn’t know that you guys didn’t contact me and you made it very uncomfortable for a lot of the parents and students at school, unbeknownst to me. And that’s all I want.”
Haberbush says they essentially told her to “take a hike” and what she was saying was not true.
The Orange County mother said she was hesitant to contact a lawyer but felt strongly that what happened to her daughter was wrong, and the insult was compounded by the terse response from Becerra and relative silence from her school board representatives. Boyle identified one board member, Gila Jones, as responsive and concerned, but in the end, Jones indicated there wasn’t much she or the school board could do in this case.
Interestingly, district disciplinary guidelines provide an apparatus for parents to escalate complaints about disciplinary actions. That apparatus ultimately ends with the authority of the school board. Not only was Boyle denied the opportunity to lodge her complaints in the timely manner supposedly guaranteed by the official disciplinary procedural guidelines, the school board was not able to provide any resolution either.
Boyle had seen enough. She researched pro-bono civil rights attorneys and found herself connected with The Gavel Project, a Phoenix-based non-profit charity committed to representing civil rights in government overreach cases. From there, CEO and founder Ryan Heath helped her to secure in-state representation by Alexander Haberbush of the LexRex Institute, a “legal and public outreach organization that works to empower private individuals to hold government officials at every level accountable to their sworn oaths to uphold the Constitution of the United States and of their various states by informing, persuading, and advocating on behalf of those who have been denied its liberties.”
Haberbush says this is more than a case of one wronged child and her angry mother. It could set a legal precedent for other parents dealing with similar things, creating a legal ripple effect that could have drastic consequences for overreaching public school administrators and districts when it comes to compelled speech. And that is exactly how Haberbush identifies this case…one of compelled speech, which would place the burden of proof on Becerra and the school.
It’s a compelled speech issue; obviously compelled speech is one of the toughest tests that they have to meet, if they want to say that this is valid, “we can do it.” We be believe that there is no way that they can meet that standard and we believe this is an egregious deprivation of her rights and that Chelsea should be vindicated.
He added that he took on the case because he believes Boyle and her daughter were genuinely wronged, and he doesn’t want to see it happen again to anyone else.
She did not call Ryan and did not call my office because she was trying to make a buck. In fact, we will not take clients who are only out to make a buck. What she wanted from the school was an apology, [for them to recognize] they had done wrong, to apologize to her daughter and apologize to her.
Haberbush intimated that while money is not a motivator, his firm does occasionally seek damages and may choose to do so in this case. However, what they really want is a formal apology and a judgment.
Primarily what we want is a judicial determination and recognition that wrongdoing occurred, so that it won’t happen again because nobody should have to go through this.
Boyle hopes that the summer break has given the Viejo Elementary principal some time to relax and ponder the situation.
I hope when this podcast comes out that he sees, oh…she’s not dropping it. I’m serious. I don’t want this to happen to my kids. I don’t want it to happen to your kids.
Haberbush says the next step in the process is to file a lawsuit against the district. He feels it is necessary to force the school to respond to his client.
When asked if Boyle had plans to return her daughter to the same school in the fall, the small business owner admitted she did want to send her back but wondered what challenges her family may face as legal avenues are being pursued.
Jesus Becerra could not be reached for comment as of the publication of this article.
*Listen to the entire interview with Chelsea Boyle and Alexander Haberbush here (available wherever you find your podcasts):
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Kira Davis is a candidate for Capistrano Unified School District Area 2 Trustee.)