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Student turns to courts after graduation ban

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A suspended Cleveland High School senior facing felony charges is asking a Sandoval County judge for an order requiring the school district to let him walk at his graduation ceremony next week, according to a recently filed lawsuit and online court records.

John Mercer, 19, was given notice last month that he could not attend or participate in the May 20 ceremony based on a disciplinary referral for alleged offenses including physically and verbally assaulting a staff member, selling or distributing drugs and disrupting the educational environment. He and his parents argue in a lawsuit filed last week that the allegations are false and that the school failed to take steps required for an extended suspension.

“John Mercer has been robbed of his contractual right to participate in graduation by punishment based on events created by school personnel acting to set him up and remove him from school and graduation ceremony,” the suit alleges.

A spokeswoman for Rio Rancho Public Schools said the district does not comment on pending litigation and cannot under federal law comment on student disciplinary cases.

But court documents show that Mercer has been charged in Sandoval County Magistrate Court with two felonies and three misdemeanors related to a series of events on April 23.

According to documents filed in that case, school security pulled Mercer out of class after another student reported that he had been selling purple pills that he stored in a sandwich bag in his underwear. As he was escorted to the office, he shouted obscenities “disturbing classes along his route of travel.” Police were called to the school after Mercer turned to the female security officer, “balled up his fists, and appeared to puff up his chest in a menacing manner.” His family shouted obscenities at police and school staff as an officer led Mercer into another room to fill out arrest paperwork, an officer wrote.

While the lawsuit notes that searches by security and police did not turn up any drugs, the criminal complaint alleges an officer found “a small sandwich baggie of six colored tablets, some of which were purple, and appeared to look like Transformer heads” hidden in the seat of his police car after he had taken Mercer into the county jail. And a sample taken from one of the pills tested positive for MDMA, commonly referred to as ecstasy.

The high school’s “Senior Contract for Graduation” warns that students could be excluded from graduation if they are suspended from school or if they are found to be in possession of drugs. The contract also explains that participation in the ceremony is not required to receive a high school diploma.

Mercer and his parents, who are represented by attorney Gail Stewart, say that they purchased a cap and gown, along with a class ring, in preparation for the ceremony. They are seeking a preliminary injunction ordering RRPS to allow him to participate in graduation and graduation rehearsal, or in the alternative, an award of damages.

“Graduation, as we all know, is a once-in-a-lifetime event. And as an education lawyer, I frankly don’t believe kids should be kept out of it at all,” Stewart said. “It’s painful to take this kind of action against a kid at the end of his schooling.”

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