• Grandmother says Clovis Unified officer sprayed her with mace and threw her to the ground.
• Mother of girls at the school says it was her former mother-in-law who overreacted.
• Clovis officials say they are open to court’s scrutiny of officer’s actions.
A 79-year-old woman is suing the Clovis Unified School District and its police force, saying she was assaulted by an officer after she tried to deliver treats to one of her granddaughters at Kastner Intermediate School.
Mary Poole says in the lawsuit that the officer sprayed Mace in her face without warning and then pulled her from the car and threw her onto the pavement. She suffered a broken arm and had to have a shoulder replacement, she says. A year later, she is still doing physical therapy.
The lawsuit seeks $1 million for pain and suffering and emotional distress, and another $183,000 for medical expenses.
“I’ve never been involved with anything like this, ever,” she said in an interview. “That’s not who I am. I did everything (the officer) asked me to do immediately. I was so frightened. I had no idea, absolutely no idea, what was going to happen.”
The mother of the girls, however, tells a different story.
“She did not get beat up at all,” said Michelle Castillo, who not only witnessed the altercation, but also videotaped it. Castillo said it was her former mother-in-law who was out of control.
“I was just shocked by the whole thing,” she said. “I couldn’t believe what I just saw, in front of my daughter — her own grandmother.”
Initially filed in Fresno County Superior Court, the lawsuit this month was moved to U.S. District Court in Fresno. Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants said the district supported the move to federal court because the allegations are related to federal civil rights law.
“The district takes any concern or allegation by a member of our community seriously, and are open to the court’s scrutiny of actions taken by Clovis Unified and our officer during the incident last year,” Avants said in a statement. “Our responsibility to protect our students is extraordinarily important to us, and we work every day to ensure that our students and our community are well taken care of and treated with respect. We must work diligently every day to ensure that in the course of protecting our kids we leave no grounds for the perception that such care and respect may not have occurred.”
Poole said she arrived shortly before the end of the school day on April 30, 2014 to deliver cookies and cupcakes. The lawsuit says she’d done it several times before without incident.
This time, an officer — who is also named in the lawsuit and only identified as T. Vang — approached Poole as she waited outside the classroom. He then knocked on the classroom door and after talking to the teacher privately, told Poole she was not able to see her granddaughters because of a restraining order that had been granted to the girls’ mother.
Court records, however, show there was no restraining order at the time of the incident. The two girls, through Castillo, tried unsuccessfully a short time after the incident to get a restraining order against Poole, but they failed, said Mark Coleman, Poole’s attorney.
“Mary didn’t do anything wrong,” Coleman said. For several years, she had been the girls’ guardian.
Poole said she then left the school and called her son, the girls’ father, who is no longer married to Castillo. He called back when Poole was in the car, so she pulled into a turnout on First Street near the school to take the call. A short time later, Vang tapped on the passenger-side window and told her to roll down the driver-side window and unlock the door, the lawsuit says. He then came to the driver’s side and sprayed Mace in Poole’s face, the lawsuit says.
There are no details in the lawsuit of any action by Poole that led to the officer’s actions.
The lawsuit says Poole “begged for (Vang) to stop, crying that she was a ‘seventy-eight year old woman.’” Vang then “pulled (Poole) out of her car and threw her down on the pavement, with her left shoulder landing on the pavement.”
Castillo has a different version of events.
She received a call that day from her daughters’ teacher, saying the grandmother was outside the classroom. She hadn’t signed in at the front office, Castillo said, and just showed up at the classroom door, which was locked.
Castillo said she immediately headed over to the school. While on her way, she said she saw Poole driving away from campus, headed west on Alluvial. She talked to Vang — who is still on duty as a Clovis Unified officer, school officials said — who said Poole was angry and was told that she had to leave the Kastner campus, and if she returned she would be arrested.
But she returned, Castillo said, and arrived back just as school was letting out, parking in front of a fire hydrant. Castillo said she started recording the incident as Vang went to the driver’s side window and tried to get Poole to roll it down. He told Poole she needed to get out of the car. Castillo said Poole was “screaming and yelling, and was in her car holding on to the steering wheel, refusing to get out.”
Vang sprayed her with Mace and then got her out of the car and onto the ground, where she was handcuffed, Castillo said.
“She put herself into that situation,” Castillo said. “Had she not gone back to the school, this never would have happened.”
Coleman, however, said his client was in no position to be a threat to anybody. Besides being 78 at the time of the incident, he said she is about 5 feet tall and weighs around 110 pounds. Instead, he said, Vang overreacted.
“You can’t challenge their authority,” Coleman said of officers. “You must be 100% compliant, even if they’re wrong.”