Mom of Teen Killed by ‘School Safety Officer’ Sues Shooter, Long Beach School District

The mother of Mona Rodriguez — the Long Beach teen who died after being shot in the head by a “school safety officer” in late September — is suing both the shooter and the Long Beach Unified School District for her daughter’s “wrongful death.”

The civil suit contains striking allegations — including that Rodriguez was killed with a “hollow-point bullet” that “shattered” the teenager’s brain, “causing pre-death pain and suffering.” It also alleges a troubled culture within the Long Beach Unified School District, in which high-ranking officials “condone” misconduct by school safety officers, including the filing of false reports and the “planting” of evidence to “‘cover up’ the negligent and excessive use of force.”

The 18-page complaint — filed in federal district court on Dec 17 and embedded below — seeks damages from the gunman Eddie F. Gonzalez, who also faces a murder charge in criminal court. The lawsuit further alleges that the district was “negligent” in its hiring, training and oversight of the officer, and “vicariously liable” for his conduct. (Neither Gonzalez, through his criminal attorney, nor the Long Beach school district responded to requests to comment on the litigation.)

“The family wants justice,” says Luis Carrillo, a prominent local attorney who represents the family. “They want this officer be prosecuted to the fullest. On the civil side, they want justice against the school district,” he says, “because they hired a guy that was obviously not qualified to have a gun.”

The alleged murder by a officer hired to protect high school students is reinvigorating the national debate about whether armed personnel enhance — or detract from — student safety. Schools from Seattle to Minneapolis to Denver have moved to kick cops off school campuses, pointing to harms associated with the over-policing of students of color and those with disabilities. Other districts have retained armed officers, in particular, to counter the threat of school shooters. The Long Beach use-of-force policy, for example, authorizes firearms to be used in “defense of others to prevent death or great bodily injury.”

The slaying of Mona Rodriguez occurred on September 27th, in a parking lot more than a block away from the campus of Millikan High School. The 51-year-old Gonzalez was conducting after-school traffic duty when 18-year-old Mona Rodriguez and another teen allegedly engaged in a scuffle in the street. The officer helped break up the altercation. But when Rodriguez — who was not a student at the school — jumped in the car of her boyfriend, Gonzalez moved to confront her.

Gonzalez advanced on the car, which peeled out in front of the officer. As captured on cell phone video, the school safety officer jumped back and simultaneously fired two bullets with a handgun into the side and back of the moving car. One of those shots hit Mona Rodriquez in the head, leaving her brain dead. Mona survived several days on life support, while her family arranged for the donation of her organs, before her ultimate death on October 5. Manuela Sahagun, Mona’s mother, is suing on behalf of family, including the infant son Mona left behind.

The school district dismissed Gonzalez on October 6 for violating its use of force policy, which specifies that “officers shall not fire at a fleeing person,” and “officers shall not fire at a moving vehicle.” The former safety officer was charged, on October 27, with second-degree murder. “This unnecessary death left a six-month-old without a mother,” said L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón announcing the charge. “This case illustrates the importance of holding public officials accountable — especially public officials who are entrusted with the safety of our families and our kids.” Gonzalez has entered a plea of not guilty; with bail set at $2 million, he’s currently jailed at a massive county corrections complex near Dodger Stadium.

The civil suit calls the shooting of the teenager an “intentional, reckless, negligent, and unjustified use of deadly force,” noting that Rodriguez was “unarmed and she was not an imminent threat” to Gonzalez, whom the suit underscores was “far outside of his jurisdiction” as a campus officer.

The lawsuit describes the gruesome injury that took Mona’s life, alleging “that the hollow-point bullet fired by defendant Eddie Gonzalez entered the right side of the brain of Mona Rodriguez; [and] that bullet fragments became scattered throughout the brain of Mona Rodriguez.”

Standard handgun rounds tend to produce injuries that resemble stabbings. By contrast, hollow point rounds are designed to expand or shatter on entry, creating a more devastating wound, and increasing what the gun industry describes as “stopping power.” Neither the district nor the Long Beach police, who conducted the homicide investigation, have disclosed what type of rounds Gonzalez had in his gun.

The Long Beach Unified School District, the suit alleges, shares in liability for the incident. The complaint describes the district as “vicariously liable” for the actions of its employee. But it also alleges the LBUSD was negligent in hiring and retaining Gonzalez in the first place. Gonzalez had been terminated, the suit claims, after short stints as an officer at two Southern California police departments — Los Alamitos, and Sierra Madre. (Neither police department responded to queries seeking to confirm details of Gonzalez’ employment history.) “In spite of these circumstances, the Long Beach Unified School District negligently hired and employed Gonzalez,” the complaint says.

The litigation condemns systemic failures by a school district it alleges has tolerated excessive force by its “safety officers.” LBUSD, the suit reads, has failed “to train its School Safety Officers as to proper tactics, proper use of force, proper use of deadly force, and proper detention and arrest procedures.” More provocatively, the lawsuit contends that “high ranking supervisors” within the district “ratify, condone, and acquiesce in the negligent and excessive use of force by its officers, acting under color of law.” The suit claims the district overlooks “the filing of false reports”; “the falsification of evidence,” and even “the ‘planting’ of evidence to ‘cover up’ the negligent and excessive use of force,” as well as “other LBUSD School Safety Officer misconduct.” (The district’s chief of school safety did not reply to a request to respond to these allegations.)

The Long Beach Unified School District spends roughly $1 million a year on school safety officers, who are supposed to “model and promote a positive, productive and safe campus climate” and ”de-escalate situations.” Yet the district’s reliance on policing its students has long been controversial. A 2016 case study found the district had “invested 200 times more on law enforcement… than on its prevention-focused school climate strategies.”

Carrillo, the family’s lawyer, blasts Gonzalez. “He had no imminent threat from Mona or from the car. But worse: Mona was the passenger. She was not even driving. She had no gun. Nobody in the car had any guns. Their own policies say you can’t shoot at a moving vehicle,” Carrillo says. “So he fucked up on all fronts.”

The attorney credits the district for doing the “right thing” by firing Gonzalez, but cautions that the move won’t protect LBUSD from liability. “Basically they’re admitting that they hired an unprofessional person who went beyond the law — across the line — and that is a danger to the community,” he says. In other words, Carrillo insists, the district has conceded: “We should have never hired him.”

The lawsuit does not make specific demands for a monetary award. But it does claim that “the conduct of defendant Eddie Gonzalez was malicious, wanton, oppressive, and accomplished with a conscious disregard” for Mona and her family’s rights, “justifying an award of exemplary and punitive damages.”

Read the lawsuit below:

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