On May 7, 2019, Joseph Nguyen was taken from his classroom by Principal Cary Willborn and San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies Ana Mata and Kristin Garcia, after authorities received a tip about a loaded gun brought on campus.
Nguyen confirmed he did have a loaded gun in his backpack stored in a locked cabinet. As a sworn reserve police officer, however, he claims can carry a firearm while off-duty, according to a civil lawsuit filed April 24, 2020, in U.S. District Court for the Central District in Los Angeles.
The Chaffey Joint Union High School District, one of the defendants in the suit, said in a response filed with the court that no one may carry a loaded gun onto school premises, except for campus safety officers. Earlier, in a prepared statement shortly after the incident, the district said the “California Gun-Free School Zone Act makes it a crime for a person to possess a firearm on or within 1,000 feet of a school campus.”
Whether Nguyen was allowed to possess the gun on campus or violated state law most likely will be brought out in a trial, scheduled to begin Tuesday, Nov. 30, with Judge Stephen V. Wilson presiding.Sample jury questions filed with the court ask whether school personnel and the sheriff’s deputies detained Nguyen because of his political beliefs or acted properly in accordance with school district policy.
“I filed the complaint because I didn’t do anything wrong,” Nguyen said in an interview Monday, Nov. 22. “I was in lawful possession of a firearm. As a Level I reserve officer with the city of Irwindale, I am allowed to carry a concealed weapon.”
Level I reserve officers have full peace officer powers both on and off-duty and are authorized to carry an off-duty weapon, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department manual on policy and procedures.
In a court document filed by school district attorney Daniel S. Modafferi, the district rejects the claim that as a reserve officer, Nguyen could carry a gun into the classroom.
“The District denies that plaintiff carried a firearm onto campus pursuant to his lawful authority as a sworn police officer at any relevant time. The District admits that it was a violation of District policy for plaintiff to possess a firearm on school grounds,” court records show.
Nguyen names the school district, the county of San Bernardino, and various school and district personnel in his complaint. He claims he’s a victim of false arrest, unlawful search and seizure and other violations of his civil rights and has suffered mental distress and loss of earnings.
His lawsuit alleges the two deputies took his gun, badge, backpack and cell phone and interrogated him and was detained for more than two-and-a-half hours. When allowed to leave, his backpack and keys were returned. He was told by a sergeant at the Rancho Cucamonga sheriff’s station he could not get his gun back because he allegedly violated school policy. Nguyen retrieved his gun sometime in June, the lawsuit states.
Nguyen said on May 16, 2019, school district superintendent Kern Oduro, also named in the complaint, asked him, “Why do you have a Ronald Reagan license plate. Obvious you are a rightwing conservative. Maybe that has something to do with why you brought a gun on campus,” according to the lawsuit.
Nguyen said he was “berated” for being a Republican and a Christian conservative by district personnel. He was placed on administrative leave. Parents and residents supported the science teacher in a rally held on May 10, 2019.
Modafferi defended the school district’s actions and wrote in a court response that political affiliations were not a factor.
“The District and its employees and agents exercised reasonable diligence to discharge their duties, and all such duties and obligations have been appropriately, completely, and fully performed and discharged,” the district said in court records.
“Any and all adverse employment actions,” the district continued, “were taken for valid business reasons, were not retaliatory, and were unrelated to any discriminatory or retaliatory motive or animus.”
Shortly after the incident, Nguyen transferred to Colony High School in Ontario. He is currently on sick leave, he said.