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By Courtney Hamilton
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Photo by Daniel C. TsangHeather Zetin, the teenager who co-founded El Modena High School's Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) and who last year successfully sued the Orange Unified School District (OUSD) for the group's right to hold meetings, has gone to court again.
In her second federal lawsuit, Zetin vs. OUSD et al., the 17-year-old argues that her First Amendment rights were violated by the district, school officials and local police when she was suspended, expelled and arrested after allegedly biting a principal's arm during an altercation at a school board meeting last year.
The Orange County district attorney's office eventually declined to prosecute Zetin, but the suit maintains her reputation was damaged by the arrest. She is also suing for slander.
A 25-page brief filed in Federal District Court in Santa Ana late last month by Zetin's attorney, Bruce W. Nickerson, asserts that Zetin was targeted by authorities because she was perceived to be a lesbian (the suit claims Zetin is bisexual), she successfully fought to establish the GSA, and she "attended a public meeting to exercise her statutory and constitutional rights."
Contacted by the Weekly, Zetin was mum about the suit. But following her arrest last year, she maintained to the Weekly that she was innocent of having bitten Canyon Hills High School principal Stanley Pasqual, who is named as a defendant in the latest suit.
On March 9, 2000, several dozen masked demonstrators, including Zetin, descended on the school board meeting and stood at the back of the meeting chambers in silent protest to the board's anti-gay position. One protester held a sign proclaiming, "Anarchist and gay pride." When Parents Rights USA member Donna Sigalas, speaking at the podium, asked, "Are these the people you want your students associating with?" two protesters ran up and threw the speaker's microphone to the floor.
As the room was being cleared, Pasqual "grabbed and attempted to detain one of the protesters," whereupon another protester allegedly bit him, according to the suit. Zetin claims she was not one of the two students. A videotape of the event provided to the Weekly does not clearly show the biting incident. Pasqual could not be reached, and the district superintendent's office failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.
No specific dollar amount is mentioned in the suit, which asks for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the defendants for the "disregard" of Zetin's rights. The suit also seeks an end to "targeting, harassing and/or arresting students who are perceived to be gay or lesbian."
Although the district later offered to re-enroll Zetin, the suit argues the offer came too late—after all other students had registered and started classes last fall. According to the suit, the former 11th-grade honor student has dropped out of school and is currently looking for a job.
Last year, Zetin's mother, Judy Anderson, told the Weekly that because Zetin was at that board meeting, school officials automatically assumed she led the protest; the suit seeks to portray the girl as merely a passive participant.
But should this case go to a jury trial, there's a good chance Zetin's past political activities will come under scrutiny. She is a committed animal-rights advocate who helped organize last summer's North American Anarchist Conference in Los Angeles during the Democratic Party's National Convention. It was the shift of her political focus from queer activism to anarchism that led her to resign from the GSA during the March 9, 2000, board meeting, a move she had contemplated even before that time.
That led to a rift with Anthony Colin, the teen who co-founded the GSA. After the board meeting disruption, Colin was quick to apologize, asserting that the masked protesters were not GSA members.
But Zetin has won support from Myron Quon, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney who represented her and Colin in the GSA case. Calling Zetin's arrest "bullshit," Quon said, "She was just exercising her First Amendment rights." And Jason Fasi, whose own attempt to start a GSA at Mission Viejo High School has been stymied by district officials there, scoffed at the idea that Zetin, who espouses nonviolence, could be the biter.
"She's a vegan!" Fasi joked.