Earning an ‘F’: Fresno County school district wanted student’s sex history in court case

Parlier High School students listen during a rally held in 2015.
Parlier High School students listen during a rally held in 2015. Fresno Bee file

Talk about a bad legal strategy: Parlier Unified’s attempt to shame one of its former students into outlining her sexual history will cost it $3,200, the result of a sanction by a Fresno County Superior Court judge.

The sanction came during the discovery part of a civil case brought by the student against the district. She contends Parlier Unified acted negligently, the result of sexual relations she had with former Parlier High basketball coach Francisco Peña. Separately, he is facing criminal charges of unlawful sex with a minor.

The shaming of the victim came to the school board’s attention in May when the girl wrote about how Parlier Unified’s attorney was questioning her.

“Even though I was a victim, (your) lawyer has attacked me and tried to make me feel that I was at fault and continues to ask improper questions to bully me,” she wrote.

She told the board that when her lawyers complained to Lynn Garcia, the district’s attorney, the lawyer responded that the teen had caused the alleged abuse by Peña. “The extent of plaintiff’s injury that resulted from sexual conduct with defendant Peña is legitimately disputed and brought on by plaintiff herself.”

That led to a strong rebuke from Superior Court Judge Kimberly Gaab, who called the suggestion “insulting.” Putting teeth to the reaction was the sanction. It came in a tentative ruling, but because the district is not contesting it, the ruling will be final.

The girl’s lawyers say the school board ignored the teen’s letter. Beyond the sanction payment is the aggravation the young woman endured for such treatment, as well as the damage to Parlier Unified’s reputation for such outrageous behavior.

Both in criminal and civil cases, seeking the sexual history of a minor is largely out of bounds for attorneys (in criminal cases, such questioning can only involve the victim and the person accused of a sex crime). If a judge allowed the defense to pursue such questioning, it would open a Pandora’s box of unseemly possibilities, such as calling any previous boyfriends she had to the stand to ask about her relations with them.

Additionally, the law says that anyone 16 or younger cannot give consent to a sexual act. The girl was 16 at the time she allegedly had relations with Peña; he was 37.

Perhaps Garcia was seeking to intimidate the teen into dropping the suit by putting the focus on her. Thankfully, Gaab ended the inquiry before it could get underway. The judge’s action brings the case back to the central question: whether Parlier Unified was negligent.

Francisco Pena Fresno County Sheriff

It is worth noting that Peña had pleaded no contest in the criminal case to a felony charge of unlawful sex with a minor. He told Parlier police he had sex with the underage student “just one time.” He withdrew the plea once he learned he would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Rather than fight in court with a former student, Parlier Unified would do better to focus on its primary mission — educating young people. In the 2017-18 school accountability report card, only a third of students tested were at or exceeding grade-level standards for language arts and literacy. Only 16 percent were meeting or exceeding math standards.

Given the no-contest plea once entered in the criminal case, it would seem Parlier Unified does not have strong grounds in the civil case, and it should settle with the student as quickly as possible. That would limit taxpayer liability and return the district to its educational mission.