Legal issues simmer over college protest at Ventura school

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Eighth grader Dylan Arevalo, sometimes known as Lil Pickle, still can’t believe what happened to his impromptu lunchtime gig at Cabrillo Middle School in Ventura on Friday.

“I was expecting 40 kids, tops,” Arevalo said, an audible smile on the phone Tuesday afternoon.

But when Arevalo and his two co-conspirators — who go by the respective nicknames Big Curry and something barely unprintable — announced on Instagram that they would be performing their original anti-drug song “Crack is Wack,” at lunchtime, the buzz spread quickly.

Instead of being a small cabaret, Arévalo’s performance drew hundreds of teeming college kids. Administrators interrupted the performance and dispersed the crowd before the music could begin, setting off a chain of events that led to a free speech dispute simmering in a local lawyer’s office.

“I was like, wow,” Arevalo said. “I just did it to joke with my friends.”

Principal Lorelle Dawes later wrote to a parent that the crowd of students had begun to “behave in a dangerous manner”, but no one was injured, according to an email reviewed by the Star. Dawes could not immediately be reached for comment.

Arevalo claimed that the administrators had reached an agreement with him, Curry and the third member of the group: they could avoid suspension with letters of apology and a week of detention each.

Arevalo’s friend and fellow eighth grader Gage Kushner saw the moment as an opportunity to support his friend and earn a few extra dollars to invest in stocks.

In a Saturday session with a friend’s computer and a t-shirt heat press, Kushner printed a limited run of 19 t-shirts and a hat with a short slogan printed in green letters: Justice for Lil Pickle. He planned to sell them to other students.

But it only took two class periods on Monday for an administrator to see the slogan and pull him into the schools Office. Kushner said the administrator asked him to cover the slogan, then when he refused, he called his father, Kenny, hoping for support.

But Kenny Kushner, an officer with the Santa Barbara Police Department, stood by his son, saying he had a right to free speech.

“I was really surprised,” Kenny Kushner said. “It was so over the top.”

Gage Kushner models a "Justice for Lil Pickle" hat he designed and printed on Monday, March 21, 2022.

Gage Kushner said administrators also asked others to remove or cover up offending merchandise, including Arevalo, and expelled at least one student — Kushner’s seventh-grade sister Presley — from campus after she refused to comply.

Now a free speech lawsuit could be in the offing, according to Ron Bamieh, a local civil rights attorney and friend of the Kushner family who advised on the matter.

“There is a bigger problem of self-transcendence that the government has engaged in,” Bamieh said. “Schools think they can control everything.”

Dawes defended the decision in an email to Kenny Kushner obtained by the Star on Monday, saying administrators feared the “frenzied energy around Little Pickle” could lead to another “crowd or riot.”

Dawes also wrote that the district’s secondary director of curriculum and instruction, Greg Bayless, and legal counsel Anthony Ramos agreed that the “temporary ban” on Lil Pickle shirts was legal.

Kushner called the experience an “anomaly” and said the family’s experience with Cabrillo had been “very good” through Monday.

The Ventura Unified School District has remained largely silent on the matter. District public information officer Marieanne Quiroz released a short written statement in response to several requests from The Star: “The district is reviewing the situation and we are working with the school; however, it is VUSD’s policy not to not comment on potential disputes.”

This story will be updated.

Isaiah Murtaugh covers education for the Ventura County Star. He can be reached at [email protected]

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