Santa Ynez Valley Union High School | Credit: Courtesy

A 16-year-old student at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School was restrained, twice sedated, and arrested last month after questions over suspected marijuana use escalated into a violent confrontation with the school’s vice principal and on-campus resource deputy. Juan Rubio now faces expulsion and possible criminal charges.

The incident prompted a flurry of complaints by students and parents who say the situation was grossly mishandled and that Rubio, a transfer student from Lompoc who does not have a history of aggression at the school but does struggle with mental health issues, was provoked into a panic. Teachers and staff have privately expressed their own alarm over how Rubio was treated. The district has since hired an outside investigative firm to look into the allegations.

“I feel like they abused him, physically and mentally,” said Rubio’s mother, who asked that her name not be used while she applies for citizenship. “Before this he was a happy kid,” she said. “Now, he’s quiet.”

Superintendent Andrew Schwab said while he could not comment on student discipline matters, “the district takes all concerns brought forward very seriously.” “I understand that situations like this can create tensions within our community and that as educators, these moments represent powerful opportunities for learning,” Schwab said. “The district will continue to work collaboratively with our students, staff, parents, and community partners to build a positive learning environment.”

As a screaming Juan Rubio is handcuffed and sedated in a classroom, Vice Principal Peter Haws tells a group of his friends gathered outside to stop filming and disperse. After they disobeyed, six of them were suspended for “harassment,” “defiance of authority,” and “misuse of an electronic device.” | Credit: Courtesy

It was just after second period on January 5 when Senior Deputy Joe Parker walked into the S-Wing boys’ bathroom and smelled burning marijuana. Present were Rubio and two other students. According to a narrative of the incident prepared by Parker and Vice Principal Peter Haws, Parker saw Rubio make a quick movement toward a stall and thought he was trying to discard something. As Parker began questioning Rubio, he “stood quiet and stared at the ground,” the narrative states. “The student didn’t respond.”

Rubio, soft-spoken and slightly built, said in a recent interview that at that moment he “just kinda panicked on the inside.” Instead of answering Parker, he exited the bathroom and started walking toward his next class. Parker followed, repeatedly ordering Rubio to accompany him to the front office so he could be searched. With Rubio continuing to ignore him, Parker radioed Haws, who caught up with them as they entered the campus quad, which at this point was filled with students and employees on their morning break. Rubio’s friends rallied by him. His cousin put his arm around Rubio’s shoulders. Parker yanked it off. In their narrative, Haws and Parker state Rubio was being “very aggressive” toward them. Rubio’s friends dispute this.

The Independent requested Parker’s body camera footage of the interactions but was told by the Sheriff’s Office the video is not releasable because Rubio is a minor. Rubio’s family said they also asked the department for the footage but have not received a response. Both Haws and Parker declined to be interviewed for this story.

The bell signaled the end of break, and Rubio again headed toward class. Haws and Parker were on his heels; the pair appeared increasingly frustrated, witnesses said. Rubio entered the classroom with other students and took a seat. Haws and Parker told him to get up. When Rubio didn’t budge, Haws and Parker ordered everyone out, including the teacher. Then they locked the door and closed the blinds. Parker removed his jacket, Rubio said. “I knew it wasn’t going to go well,” he said. “I was really anxious.” 

Rubio explained at this point he stood up, finally ready to accompany Haws and Parker to the office to be searched, but he was told to sit back down. “I asked them, ‘How do you expect me to go if you’re telling me to sit?’ ” Rubio kept trying to leave the classroom, but Parker kept blocking his way. “They weren’t giving me space,” he said. That sent Rubio spinning. He started yelling and throwing things. Parker grabbed Rubio, but he wriggled free. The deputy called for backup. 

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As Rubio made one last effort to reach the door, he said, Haws and Parker each grabbed him by an arm and dragged him to the floor. Within moments, four more deputies arrived and pinned Rubio on his stomach. He remembered his chin grinding into the linoleum. They searched his pockets and found a vape pen and cartridge.

Meanwhile, outside, Rubio’s friends and cousin were apoplectic. At some point in the struggle, one of the deputies’ radios was activated and Rubio could be heard over the airwaves gasping for breath. When the door finally cracked open, all they could see of their classmate were the bottoms of his shoes. “I was just scared for him,” said 16-year-old Sergio Ramirez-Melgoza. “I didn’t know if he was going to come out alive, to be honest.”

Deputies told the group to back away, and Haws threatened them with suspension if they didn’t return to class. “How could we just go back to class and focus when we were so worried about Juan?” asked Allesandro Cabrera, 17. “I told him I didn’t care. I’m here for my friend.” The group’s anger only grew as they watched another one of their friends, an 18-year-old senior, being arrested for allegedly obstructing the deputies. Witnesses said Parker expressed satisfaction that he could be charged as an adult. When Cabrera did go back to class, he laid his head on his desk and cried.

Even after some time, Rubio remained so agitated — actively resisting and screaming at the top of his lungs — that paramedics were summoned. They monitored his vital signs and decided a sedative was needed. But after administering a dose of a medication called midazolam, Rubio’s heart was still racing, so they readied another syringe. “I was trying to stay awake,” Rubio explained. “I wanted to know what was going on.” After the second dose, and as he was being lifted onto a stretcher, Rubio said his head struck a desk. “That’s when I started to lose consciousness,” he said. The next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital with his father by his side.

Haws made good on his threat to suspend every member of the group, citing “defiance of authority” and characterizing the teens’ vocal protests outside the classroom as “harassment.” A few were also cited for “misuse of an electronic device” for using their phones to film the scene. They were each sent home for two days, and two of Rubio’s friends were also docked hours at their jobs as bussers at a Santa Ynez restaurant. The manager cited the restaurant’s “code of conduct” and admonished the pair for causing trouble at school. 

Haws and Principal Michael Niehoff have recommended Rubio be expelled over the incident. It will be up to the district’s Board of Education to make the final decision. The hearing has been delayed as Rubio’s family speaks with attorneys and secures assistance for his IEP, or Individualized Education Program, a planning document developed for public school students in need of specialized instruction. A Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, citing Rubio’s age, said the department could not comment on any potential criminal charges against him and that the case has been forwarded to the county’s Juvenile Probation department for review.

Rubio, meanwhile, remains indefinitely suspended. He sits in his Lompoc home most days with his thoughts and video games. He’s having difficulty sleeping. His father, Juan Rubio Sr., is a ranch manager in the valley and his mother is a caretaker who commutes to Santa Barbara. They’re concerned about him. Rubio suffers off and on from severe depression, they said, and has twice attempted suicide. COVID also took a notable toll on his psyche, they explained.

Rubio’s older sister, Viviana Rubio-Herrera, a medical assistant living in Santa Maria, is helping the family navigate their dealings with the district as best she can. She often acts as their parents’ interpreter and feels like it’s her responsibility to make sure none of them are taken advantage of. 

Rubio-Herrera believes the school has unfairly demonized her brother. Yes, he’s been in trouble before, but never for anything serious, she stated. Mostly truancy. “Juan is not aggressive the way they’re describing him to be,” their mother agreed. “If he was acting that way, it’s because he was terrified.”

The family said they would much prefer to remain under the radar and would rather not pick a fight with the school, but after talking with others who’ve had their own negative experiences at the campus, they felt the need to speak out. “The amount of force they used was not okay,” said Rubio-Herrera. “We knew we couldn’t just leave it.”

The Independent interviewed multiple teachers and staff members at Santa Ynez High for this story. They all asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional reprisal. There was a clear consensus among them, however, that the manner in which Rubio was arrested was unnecessary and unjustified. They described Haws and Parker as escalating an already fraught situation rather than trying to defuse it. They called their reaction “extreme.”

Of course, Rubio shouldn’t be smoking weed in the bathroom, those interviewed said, but once it became clear he wasn’t responding well to the pair’s orders — and because he didn’t pose an immediate threat to himself or others — alternative remedies could have been tried before physical force was used. A counselor or the school’s psychiatrist could have been called over to talk Rubio down, they suggested, or his parents contacted. There was another consensus among the employees — a hope that the incident will lead to honest discussions and better training.

Rubio-Herrera also hopes something positive comes of it. “This was an abuse of power,” she said. “We just don’t want it to happen again.”

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