WILLOWS, Calif. - Gary Tudesko never dreamed that a duck hunt before school could turn into a legal battle involving the Fourth Amendment, the California Code of Education and federal "Gun-Free School Zone" laws.
But when the 17-year-old junior at Willows High School in rural northern California stowed his and a friend's unloaded shotguns on the back seat of his Chevy Silverado and went to class on the morning of Oct. 26, it set off a chain of events that led first to Tudesko's suspension from school, and, at the end of November, his expulsion by the school district.
The transgression: Violations of the California Code of Education and its mandate against possession of firearms on school property.
Except that Tudesko's truck wasn't parked on school property that morning. And he never possessed a firearm on grounds belonging to the Willows Unified School District.
On Tuesday, Jan. 19, in an appeal to the five-person Glenn County Office of Education Board, Tudesko, his mother Susan Parisio, and civil rights attorneys Chuck Michel and Hillary Green from Michel & Associates in Long Beach will attempt to reverse what Michel — the California lead council for the National Rifle Association and California Rifle and Pistol Association — calls "a total injustice, and an example of a zero-tolerance policy carried to the point of ridiculousness".
Rewind to Oct. 26
According to Tudesko, the two finished their hunt at roughly 7:50 a.m., leaving them 10 minutes before the first bell at Willows High School.
Tudekso and Love drove straight to school instead of running home to leave their duck-hunting gear, and Tudesko parked his truck on Willows Street, a paved street that runs east-west along the school tennis courts and adjacent to the school maintenance buildings, roughly 100 feet north of the entrance to the Willows High main campus.
Willows Street is a public street, not owned by the Willows Unified School District, and Tudesko says that he parked there specifically to avoid a violation of laws forbidding the presence of guns in school.
"They say not to park with guns on campus — that's just common sense," Tudesko says. "When I parked there, I knew I was parked on a public street. I figured I was OK. Some of my friends had guns that day, too, but I guess they parked in a better spot than I did."
That morning, representatives from Interquest Detection Canines were allowed into Willows High classrooms with a trained Labrador retriever to conduct random drug searches throughout the school.
The brief — which can be read and commented on at www.calgunlaws.com — states that Interquest was donating their services at Willows High on Oct. 26, and upon finishing the random classroom/locker searches under the supervision of principal Mort Geivett, they encouraged Geivett to return to his normal routine while they continued with unsupervised searches of the school parking lot.
Testimony at the expulsion hearing indicated that Interquest's agents would search "kind of the perimeter of the school." According to Michel and Green, no direct references were made to off-campus searches, and further testimony indicated that Interquest would "do parking lots" and "do perimeters" and that "they would kind of pick and choose" their search boundaries.
Shortly thereafter, Interquest's retriever, according to Interquest personnel, alerted to Tudesko's truck parked on Willows Street. Tudesko's 870 Remington and his friend's gun were both lying in plain sight on the back seat.
"I wasn't going to lie to him," Tudesko says. "I told him 'I have (guns) in my truck, but I didn't realize it was going to be a big deal. If you want me to, I'll go run (the guns) home and won't bring them again.'
Geivett ordered Tudesko to unlock his truck — "He did not ask Gary's permission or otherwise acknowledge that Gary had a choice in the matter," Michel says — and then authorized the Interquest agents to search the vehicle and seize the guns and ammunition, as well a hunting knife stashed in the truck's center console.
"I didn't know at the time that I could say 'no'," Tudesko says of Geivett's order to search his truck, and of the student's Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure rights. "I asked him, 'I'm parked on a public street, is that your jurisdiction?', and he said 'Yeah, it is.' I figured he must've been right, or why would he tell me that?"
The Interquest agents removed the two shotguns from the back seat, several .12-gauge shot shells and a knife from the center console of the truck, and officer Alves took the two shotguns into police possession. Alves subsequently filled out a Willows Police Department "Property and Evidence Form, in which she filed the guns under "Misc. Found Property/Non-Criminal."
Tudesko, Alves and Geivett returned to the school, and Geivett informed Tudesko that he was suspended from school for five days for violating Education Code section 48900(b), which states that a student can be suspended or recommended for expulsion if they "Possessed, sold, or otherwise furnished a firearm, knife, explosive, or other dangerous object."
The school contacted Tudesko's stepfather to inform him of the suspension, Geivett directed Tudesko to leave campus immediately, and Tudesko walked unaccompanied to his truck and drove home.
"I just thought I'd go home for a few days and then come back to school, and it'd be over," Tudesko says. "I never thought they'd expel me."
Downtown Willows is flanked 6 miles to the south and east by the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, which sprawls over 35,000 acres to include the Sacramento, Delevan, Colusa, Sutter and Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuges, and the Butte Sink, North Central Valley and Willow Creek-Lurline Wildlife Management Areas.
An estimated 3 million ducks and 1 million geese filter through the area every season. The nickname for the Willows High's sports team is "Honkers," and a drawing of a goose in flight emblazons everything from the schools official Web site to stationary used for the school newsletter.
Willows is, for lack of a more accurate term, the waterfowl-hunting capitol of California.
"Duck hunting is just what you do here," Tudesko says. "This is duck country. Just about every guy in school is a duck hunter."
Which would explain the growing sense of outrage within the Sacramento Valley hunting community when the school district began to push for Tudesko's expulsion. The youth's name began to appear on internet hunting forums across the country, and local hunters rallied to his defense while questioning Geivett, the Willows School District, and nearly everything that happened on Oct. 26.
"I understand that there are laws to protect kids, but what that principal did was beyond being careful," says Greg Galli, owner of River Valley Outfitters in nearby Gridley. "All that kid did was go out, try to shoot some ducks and then hurry to get to school. You talk to (hunters) around here and they start to ask questions: was he targeted because he was a hunter? Did he have a duck sticker on his truck that identified him as a hunter? It all seems pretty suspicious to me."
Geivett, who's a fisherman, says that no such anti-hunting sentiment influenced either the search or the expulsion hearing.
"I have nothing against hunters — I love I it when kids tell me about their hunting and fishing trips," he says. "I never thought I'd have to apologize for not being a hunter, but I should point out that members of the (Willows Unified) board are hunters."
The school extended Tudesko's original five-day suspension an additional 19 days to Nov. 26, the date of a special public hearing before the Willows Unified School District (WUSD) board of trustees. Parisio had been informed of the expulsion order on Oct. 28, when WUSD superintendent Steve Olmos indicated that the district felt strongly that Tudesko's transgression required him to be removed from school for the remainder of his junior year.
"(Olmos) said that expulsion was mandatory, and that weapons don't belong at school," Parisio says. "They were absolutely not going to allow Gary back in school."
"There's not a grey area to me when I'm talking about the safety of the kids and staff," Geivett says. "To me, you cannot possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of school premises. The spot where Gary parked his truck is less then 20 feet away from our tennis courts. My (level of concern) is not the same if you have a shotgun 1,000 feet away from me as it is with a shotgun as close as 15 to 20 feet. My contention is that I don't want to play with the safety of staff and students with a tape measure. That street is kind of a transit point for kids who go from class to class. They walk right down that sidewalk on the way to P.E. You can touch those vehicles as you go class to class. I cannot have those weapons that close to campus."
At the heart of these citations are the legal definitions of "possession" and "on school grounds," neither of which Michel insists were met, and what he considers the mixing of incongruous elements of Education and Penal codes.
"The legislative intent of the word 'possession' is that you have the gun, you can control it, it's within your immediate control, and that's certainly not what the situation was here," Michel says. "(Tudesko) never actually possessed the gun or had it in his hands while he was at school. "And 'school grounds' means school property. It's where the school property line ends. If you're not on school property, you're either on public property — which is exactly what the street Gary parked on is — or you're on private property, which is what's right next to that street. That's absolutely not the school's jurisdiction."
Michel says that Geivett tried to circumnavigate the definition of those terms by expressing the opinion that the term "on school grounds" as defined in the Code of Education actually extended to areas "on or near school grounds." He then went on to invoke language from both state and federal "Gun-Free School Zone" laws, stating that school grounds actually extend 1,000 feet beyond school property to include public property located adjacent to the school.
That, according to Michel, was an erroneous conflation of Education Code language, which provides some limited jurisdiction to school officials, and "Gun-Free" criminal/penal-code language, which, according to Michel, was out of context at the expulsion hearing because Tudesko had never been charged with a criminal offense, and the state's gun-free laws had no bearing on the issue at hand.
"There were semantics being played that just defy logic," Michel says. "Really, though, it's pretty simple: School administrators have some limited jurisdiction under the Education Code to cover things happening at school and at school-sanctioned events like field trips, but the laws that the principal was trying to use in reference to a 1,000-foot gun-free zone have nothing to do with the Education Code."
Geivett maintains his opinion that the presence of Tudesko's unloaded shotguns inside his truck parked on Willow Street required that he be referred for expulsion, and, according to Michel's brief, Geivett repeatedly informed the four-member board that they, too, were compelled to automatically expel Tudesko.
"It's my understanding (that) I'm required to refer for expulsion because of the guns," Geivett says. "There was somebody suspended from school for 5 days that same day because he had shells and a knife in his truck. The dog alerted on three different vehicles (that day): one had beer cans set to be recycled in the back of the truck, another (alert) was because of gunpowder.
"This kid indeed had shells in the truck - he drove his dad's truck that day, and his dad confirmed that they had just gone hunting recently — (but) he got suspended for 5 days. Gary had the knife and shells just like the other kid, but when there are shotguns or rifles, now we're talking about stepping over the lines and into 'shall refer' (for expulsion)."
Green and Michel oppose that opinion.
"This is incorrect as a matter of law and in fact was one of the main problems from the expulsion hearing," Green says. "That code section calls for a mandatory expulsion RECOMMENDATION, not an 'automatic expulsion' as Geivett wrongly instructed the District."
"I'm not a bad kid"
His high-school grades range from above-average in vocational classes to below-average in math, and he attended summer school to make up for missed credits in English and history.
"Gary talks too much in class, but he gets along great with people at school," Parisio says. "His teachers like him, his friends like him. He's a very easy young man to get along with."
At the November expulsion hearing, Geivett read into the public record every disciplinary referral from Tudesko's freshman, sophomore and junior years, which he says he did to establish a pattern of disregard for school rules.
"We're talking about no less than 25 referrals, some for what I consider to be very serious offenses," Geivett says. "I spent 10 to 15 minutes going over each one of those referrals, which range from calling a teacher foul names to just being generally disruptive.
"It's another thing that goes into this expulsion: We've done what we could do to try to get Gary to do the right things. Detention, Saturday school and counseling just haven't worked. When we've done what we felt necessary to fix the behavior, we can recommend for expulsion or placement elsewhere."
Geivett's assertion points to Education Code 48915(c) — which states that a student may be expelled when "other means of correction are not feasible or have repeatedly failed to bring about proper conduct, or; due to the nature of the act, the presence of the pupil causes a continuing danger to the physical safety of the pupil or others — but Michel believes that the junior's disciplinary record has no relation to the specific conditions of his expulsion.
"Gary's disciplinary record wasn't relevant," Michel says. "That was nothing more than an attempt to show that he was an ongoing threat, and that there were no other means of mitigating it. Even that, though, was non-sensical. There was nothing in his disciplinary record that indicated he was a danger to anybody. On none of those referrals did any of his teachers request intervention on behalf of Gary or the staff. He was a kid who had some detentions."
Parisio was taken aback by the public recital of Tudesko's school record into the expulsion hearing, and says she was not informed of its inclusion in the proceedings prior to the hearing.
"It really hit me how out of proportion (Geivett) took it," Parisio says. "In the transcript (of the hearing), it takes less than 1/3 of a page to go over Gary's past academic record, which was good. But when (Geivett) was reading page after painful page of the disciplinary record into the public record, it took 15 to 18 pages of the 96-page transcript. It was out of context and overblown. It was designed to embarrass Gary, and make him look like a bad kid. It was an attack."
It was at this point that Tudesko began to grasp the severity of the situation.
"The principal is up there talking about me like I'm such a horrible kid," Tudesko says. "People who don't know me must think I'm a bad kid. I might've said some bad words, but I'm not a bad kid. I get along with everybody, and I thought I got along with the principal and vice-principal."
The WUSD board entered private session at 2:45 p.m. to discuss Tudesko's fate, and by the 4:29 adjournment of the meeting, a 4-0 vote had been cast in favor of expelling him.
"I thought to myself 'Wow, this is really going farther than I thought it would'," Tudesko says simply.
A youth in limbo
"There were a lot of things that weren't brought to the district's attention at the original hearing," Green says. "There are some specific due-process rules for fair student hearings that were not followed at the expulsion hearing."
The Glenn County Office of Education has employed council from the Oakland-based firm of Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost, and former Oakland Schools' chief council Roy Combs, to educate its five board members on how to properly handle the review.
"This is a real high-profile case, and we wanted to make sure (the board) did everything by code to render the best decision based (on the information)," says Glenn County Superintendent of Schools Arturo Barrera.
The case has received national attention — Tudesko and Parisio both appeared on "Fox and Friends" shortly after the expulsion, and Barrera says that the Glenn County administrative office has been inundated with calls "from all across the country" — but nowhere is it more strongly debated than in the duck blinds and rural coffee shops of northern California.
"I'd say that the support on the street is overwhelmingly in favor of Gary Tudesko," Superintendent Barrera says. "You're talking about a rural farm community that has generations and generations of young people who hunt. Willows is a thoroughfare for waterfowl. I was born in this town (and) back in the day, nobody raised an eyebrow to see a high school boy drive on the school grounds with their shotguns in their gun racks in their window. And I don't mean 'Park on the street next to school', I mean on school grounds."
Both Tudesko and Parisio are cautiously optimistic that the expulsion will be reversed, and that Tudesko will be allowed to return to Willows High late this month.
"I find (the board) to be reasonable people, so I tend to think they're going to be reasonable in the way they look at this," Parisio says. "I'm hopeful: I just cannot imagine that they wouldn't overturn the expulsion."
Until then, 17-year-old Gary Tudesko spends his days in limbo.
He's not allowed to attend any school events, so the normal social trappings of a high school junior — daily interaction with his peers, sporting events, the Willows High Winter Ball, his Future Farmers of America Harvest Banquet — have been denied him. He's fallen a full three months behind in his classes, because, although he's completed homework packets for some of his Willows High classes, he's not allowed on campus to take tests.
Alternative schooling options in Willows ares limited, but Tudesko enrolled in four core courses this week at the William Finch Charter School, a non-traditional public school administered by Glenn County.
Tudekso's biggest day-to-day battle for the last three months: boredom. He helps his step-father Bill Parisio at the family's composting business when needed and handles daily chores around the family's property, but, in his own words, most is his time is spent "at home, waiting".
"I try to go hunting when I can," he says. "I talk to a handful of my closest friends, but, really, just a few people." he says. "I want to go back to school, but right now, all I can do it just sit around and wait. "
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