A beloved Black police officer within a California public school district is suing his former employer for racial discrimination and retaliation—which ultimately led to his termination.
In a lawsuit filed Oct. 20 against the Val Verde Unified School District and its accompanying police department, Zuriah McKnight said he instantly noticed differences with how he and other Black police officers at Val Verde were treated in comparison to their white colleagues after he was hired in Dec. 2019.
“Mr. McKnight continuously spoke up concerning [discrimination] and suffered from retaliation by [Val Verde Unified District],” the lawsuit says. “Due to the hostile environment, Mr. McKnight was forced to take medical leave for his own health. While on leave, Mr. McKnight was subjected to false investigations to which he was not informed of, in violation of the Peace Officer Bill of Rights, and threatened by his supervisors and Chief of Police.”
McKnight, 35, said he was once written up for “rolling lights and sirens without approval.” Meanwhile, he claims a white employee of the department did something similar and received no form of punishment. During periods of bereavement, Black officers had to verify the death of family members, unlike their white colleagues, he alleges. McKnight also said he was the only new officer to be written up for not being properly trained on how to assign overtime.
McKnight’s employment remained in jeopardy and was constantly used as a threatening tactic, the lawsuit states.
After he was written up for the lights and sirens incident, the lawsuit says Chief of Police Mark Clark attempted to scare McKnight, telling him that he “could not afford to make a mistake because of [his racial] background.”
In May 2022, Clark allegedly told McKnight that he no longer cared about McKnight’s career goals and wouldn’t recommend him for further professional training sessions.
McKnight alleged Clark and Sergeant Christopher Stowell made accusatory generalizations about Black people, blaming Black Lives Matter protesters for social unrest in 2021 and questioning if McKnight was going to “eat fried chicken” instead of bagels that were provided at work in June 2022.
Separately, McKnight claimed his white higher-ups attempted to utilize his Blackness for their gain. Allegedly, Stowell asked McKnight to speak on “behalf of the department to the [school] Board” during national Defund the Police campaigns in 2021.
Congratulations to Zuriah McKnight, our newest officer who was board approved tonight. Welcome to the family. pic.twitter.com/TMBCEgMTTZ
— VVUSD-Police Department (@VVUSDPD) August 5, 2020
“Sergeant Stowell explained [McKnight] should speak on the issue because the former Board President was also Black. Sergeant Stowell said that he would be more likely to listen to another Black man,” the lawsuit states. “[McKnight] feeling [intimidated] and fearful of termination, agreed to speak to the Board.”
McKnight also said he noticed a stark difference in how male and female officers were treated, with female officers being denied ballistic vests. The chief and sergeant also vocalized misogynistic views, according to the lawsuit, when they refused to sign a get-well card to a female officer who was severely injured.
“If she was at home like she should have been, she wouldn’t have been shot,” the chief and sergeant said, according to the lawsuit.
McKnight attempted to resign near the end of 2022 after he “felt the discrimination, harassment, and retaliation [were] only worsening,” the lawsuit states. However, Clark advised him not to create a racial “narrative.”
“I will create one that is worse for you and will not be good for you or your future in law enforcement,” Clark allegedly told McKnight.
Multiple investigations were launched against McKnight after his initial desire to resign, according to the lawsuit, and he was also told to provide the login information to his social media accounts while on medical leave in February.
“Defendants terminated [McKnight’s] employment for reasons that violate public policy in that Defendants unlawfully terminated [McKnight] for his race and in retaliation,” the lawsuit alleges. “[McKnight] has suffered and continues to suffer humiliation, lack of self-confidence, embarrassment, emotional distress and mental anguish.”
In turn, McKnight wants financial compensation for damages and a trial by jury.
As of Thursday, McKnight’s profile is still listed on the district website.
McKnight has made his dedication to the academic community well-known.
“I did [this job] for the kids,” he told ABC 7 Los Angeles after filing the lawsuit. “I volunteered for nonprofit organizations that deal with youth, and I gave it my all every day I went in there, and to see something taken away from you that you've worked so hard for; it messes with your mental psyche, and your emotional wellbeing.”
At the start of the 2022-23 school year, McKnight had gone viral in a video where he is seen brightening students’ spirits during a dance party at Orange Vista High School, according to ABC 7 Los Angeles.
In a post seen on the school’s Instagram page, McKnight breaks it down in front of bright strobe lights in a packed gym.
“[McKnight] already has a great relationship with everybody on campus, students and staff alike,” Orange Vista High School Activities Director Dina Greene said at the time, ABC 7 reported.
One student on the school’s Instagram page called him a “legend.”
Despite what appeared to be overwhelming praise for the dance number, McKnight’s attorney, Mika Hilaire, said he received a wave of backlash.
“There were also comments questioning his abilities as well when he got some attention for being on the news because he was so well-liked and was dancing with students,” she said, according to ABC 7.
Neither Val Verde Unified School District nor its accompanying police department immediately responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.