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Tokay graduate Jeremy Hixson sues city of Lodi, school district over Grape Bowl access

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Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2010 12:00 am

A Tokay High School graduate with a degenerative bone disorder is suing the city of Lodi and the Lodi Unified School District under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

An attorney for Jeremy Hixson filed the case in federal court on May 7. Hixson's lawsuit alleges that the city and the district did not make reasonable accommodations to allow him to fully participate in his Tokay High graduation ceremony last May.

Hixson is seeking unspecified monetary damages and a court order requiring that Lodi draft a plan detailing how it will make the stadium ADA-compliant.

He said his main issue is that the stadium should have been ADA-compliant many years ago, and even though the city knew the stadium was not in compliance, it kept holding events there.

"It would have been easier for all the parties involved, including the city, if things were done as they were meant to be done even before I started going to Tokay," he said.

His lawsuit also alleges that he was ridiculed by students and parents for asking for accommodations.

"Some people would be straightforward and say that they didn't agree with me, and that I was just out for the money," he said.

In April 2009, Hixson sent a letter asking the school district to find a way to enable him to use his wheelchair on the Grape Bowl's field during the graduation ceremony.

Two days before he graduated, Hixson and the city reached an agreement, which he said at the time was win-win. Hixson rode in a golf cart to his seat and then used a rubber mat to access the podium.

In his lawsuit, Hixson stated he accepted the accommodations because the district said the other option would be to cancel the ceremony or hold it at a smaller venue. When parents and students found out that the ceremony might be changed, Hixson stated he "became a target of ridicule and venom."

He said this forced him to accept the compromise and "suffer the status of a second-class graduate."

The city had originally told the school district that it would not allow the graduation to be held at the stadium unless a compromise was reached, city spokesman Jeff Hood said. He said the city was under the impression that an agreement had been reached.

"It's sad that it no longer seems to be about providing access, and we feel like we have been double-crossed," Hood said.

Russell Humphrey, a local attorney representing Hixson, said the city is unwilling to take responsibility for not making the required upgrades.

"If it makes the city feel better to blame Jeremy, a young disabled kid, for asking the city to comply with the law, then fine," he said. "If they had complied 20 years ago, there would not be a Jeremy Hixson lawsuit."

He also said the Lodi Unified School District should have made accommodations.

In the lawsuit, Hixson stated that the stadium did not have a safe exit way from the parking lot to the stadium, and that the ramps were too steep and did not have landings, handrails or guardrails. He also stated that there was no access to bathrooms, and that he could not reach his parents from where he was located on the field.

Hixson and Humphrey met with city staff to discuss the plans for making improvements to the Grape Bowl. While they are pleased and impressed with the upgrades, Humphrey said they want to keep pressuring the city, because there is an issue of trust.

"On one hand, we are glad that they are taking it seriously, but on the other hand, we can't trust that they are going to do it on their own," Humphrey said.

At the same time he is working on the Hixson case, Humphrey is also defending two business owners in Stockton who are being sued to make their businesses ADA-compliant. The businesses were sued by Scott Johnson, who is disabled, and frequently files ADA lawsuits.

Humphrey understands that some people have cynicism about ADA lawsuits, but he hopes that the community will realize that it is receiving the benefit of an upgraded, accessible stadium.

"If Jeremy did not stand up to the city, not a penny would be spent on the Grape Bowl," he said. "It would be sitting there out of compliance, even if the city does not want to admit it."

In late 2009, Hixson filed claims with both the city and district, which were both rejected.

City Attorney Steve Schwabauer said he does not know if the city will hire outside counsel to defend the lawsuit. When it comes to graduation this year, he said it will be up to the school district to see if they want to re-evaluate using the Grape Bowl.

The city plans to get portable ADA-complaint restrooms for the Tokay High School and Lodi High School graduations.

The city has also already installed ADA-complaint ramps and seating at the Grape Bowl for a total cost of $416,000. The city also regraded the east parking lot so that it flows smoothly to the new ramp.

This summer the city is planning to spend another $1.37 million to install artificial turf.

Humphrey said it is good the city is making accommodations, but it should have done it sooner.

"This should not be a 2010 issue," Humphrey said.

Hixson, a freshman at University of the Pacific, suffers from Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a condition that makes bones extremely fragile. He has suffered more than 30 bone fractures in his life and is confined to a wheelchair.

Hixson said while he is pleased that the city is making progress, he believes the city should have been more proactive about the upgrades.

"I'm really hoping to set an example because cities need to be held accountable," Hixson said. "You can't sweep the issue under the rug and hope not one complains about it."

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com.

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