Former Amos Alonzo Stagg High School Principal Benjamin Nakamura, who was escorted off campus after his graduation speech earlier this year, has filed a claim against Stockton Unified School District for “injuries sustained during his employment” at the district.
The tort claim document further cites Nakamura was racially discriminated and retaliated against by Stockton Unified, seeking damages in excess of $25,000.
In the process of filing lawsuits, filing a claim at the district level “is an administrative process that we need to go through, this is an old rule that you have to meet,” said Nakamura’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy.
McCoy was waiting for direction from Nakamura on Wednesday afternoon, “but would advise to file a lawsuit,” he said.
The district published the claim file in their agenda for their Aug. 10 meeting (point 2.6). Under closed session point 2.5, Nakamura’s last name is listed among other legal cases against the school district.
The Board of Trustees started their closed session meeting at 5:10 p.m. and finished at 5:45 p.m. A minute later, they reached agenda point 4.2, a public “announcement of action taken in closed session, if any.”
The board voted 6-1, “with Trustee Flores voting no to deny the claim of Ben Nakamura,” stated board Vice President Maria Mendez.
What the claim states – and what denying it means
Tort law aims to “provide relief to injured parties for harms caused by others, to impose liability on parties responsible for the harm, and to deter others from committing harmful acts,” summarized Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute.
In California, “before an individual can bring a lawsuit against a public entity like a school district, the individual is required to submit a claim,” to the district, Stockton Unified’s legal counsel stated via email through the district’s director of communications Melinda Meza.
Because the school district voted to deny Nakamura’s claim, “the individual then may file a lawsuit,” Stockton Unified’s legal counsel stated. “The denial of claim generally means the district will not pay the amount asked or the claim does not have merit.”
“We never get anybody who says they agree or (agree to) meet the claim,” because it can represent someone (Stockton Unified, in this case) who essentially agrees to get sued, McCoy said.
When McCoy accepted Nakamura’s case, “I felt he had a viable claim against the school district or retaliation because he opposed discrimination at the school district and immediately after that they terminated his employment,” he said.
In a previous interview with The Record, Nakamura stated that the San Joaquin County Superior Court civil grand jury’s findings about Stockton Unified echoed the sentiments he expressed in his graduation speech in May.
“The Board of Trustees failed to listen to the communities and individuals who elected them,” Nakamura said after the report was published.
The series of events leading to claim
The document signed by Nakamura’s attorney specifies the former district employee is filing a tort claim and continues to present a history of events.
The claim file describes moments where after a racist question was discussed among Stagg staff, Nakamura opposed the behavior and was then praised for the work he was doing as principal; soon after, he was notified in March that he was being terminated at the end of the school year.
When graduation season came, he delivered a speech to the student body during the first of three Stagg graduation ceremonies on May 27. Afterward, he was escorted off the campus, and his keys were taken away.
Stockton Unified “received several complaints from parents that the principal at Stagg High School used the graduation as a platform for his personal grievances,” Meza stated via email.
According to Stockton Unified, Nakamura went against the COVID-19 protocol the district established for graduation ceremonies.
However, escorting and forcing Nakamura to leave, taking away his keys and making statements against him “was a way to harass him and humiliate him in front of everyone,” because Nakamura had opposed discrimination, McCoy said.
The events during this graduation ceremony “support the claim of retaliation,” McCoy stated.
Timeline: How events developed, as stated in Nakamura’s tort claim
Sept. 3, 2020 – Stagg Assistant Principal Kathryn Byers asks Assistant Principal Leonard Jones if she could ask a “stupid” question and continued to inquire why Black children did not value education.
December 2020 – Jones files a complaint for racial discrimination, alleging he was “subjected to a hostile work environment based on his race” due to Byers’ behavior. During the same month, the suit claims the district recognized Nakamura as a “Stockton Star” for his “innovative practices and work as a principal.”
Jan. 4, 2021 – Nakamura presents human resources with a list of 12 staffers who “had been targeted by Ms. Byers, nine of whom were Black.”
Jan. 15, 2021 – Nakamura earns a positive evaluation from his superior.
February 2021 – Stockton Unified’s director of communications and interim superintendent both praise Nakamura for being “a dynamic leader and advocate for equity.” The document does not clarify if this interim superintendent was Brian Biedermann or John Ramirez Jr.
March 3, 2021 – Nakamura receives a positive evaluation from an evaluator, “confirming that he was the right fit for Stagg.”
March 4, 2021 – Nakamura and Jones are interviewed by an attorney on behalf of the district regarding Jones’ discrimination complaint.
March 5, 2021 – The interim assistant superintendent calls Nakamura to tell him he would be released at the end of the year because he was not a “good fit.” Jones was similarly terminated.
May 7, 2021 – Nakamura reapplies to be principal at Stagg.
May 19, 2021 – Nakamura interviews for the position.
May 20, 2021 – Nakamura interviews through a second round for the position. Afterwards, the superintendent recommends both Nakamura and another candidate for the position. Per the claim, the board voted against hiring Nakamura and he was later told the candidate who was selected “expressed that he thought the district should have hired Mr. Nakamura.”
- Ramirez’s status as superintendent (no longer interim) was part of the May 25 board agenda, point 1.4. His employment agreement was then approved in a 5-2 vote, with Trustees AngelAnn Flores and Candelaria Vargas opposing.
May 28, 2021* – Nakamura delivers his speech at the Stagg graduation ceremony. Per the claim, his speech “was pre-scheduled, and listed on the graduation agenda.” After the speech, the previous interim superintendent approached Nakamura, took his keys and escorted him off campus. That same day, Nakamura was given a paid administrative leave “by police at his residence.”
- * Stagg graduation was hosted on Thursday, May 27, not Friday the 28. In his role as director of educational services, former interim Superintendent Brian Biedermann approached Nakamura at Stagg.
June 9, 2021 – Nakamura received a letter of reprimand stating three things:
- Nakamura had been insubordinate and unprofessional for giving his speech.
- Delivering diplomas and hugging students violated Stockton Unified’s COVID-10 requirements. (However, the claim argues Nakamura was not given any guidance or requirement to pre-record his speech, and other district staff, including principals, also spoke and hugged students at their ceremonies.)
- Stockton Unified was waiting for an update from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing regarding an eight-day suspension of Nakamura’s teaching credential.
For more details, you can view the claim document posted on Stockton Unified’s August 10 agenda under point 2.6; the file is named “Nakamura Tort Claim,” (http://go.boarddocs.com/ca/susd/Board.nsf/goto?open&id=C3XGMF5B2E46).
Record reporter Laura Diaz covers social justice and societal issues. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @laurasdiaz_. Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at https://www.recordnet.com/subscribenow.