Texas Zero Tolerance
Texas Zero Tolerance
© Texas Zero Tolerance
Yvette Lacobie was steamed at one of her teachers at Bellaire High School. She felt like her Spanish teacher had been picking on her all year, and particularly so on that day.

So she did what a lot of teenagers do. She vented to her friends. She went home last November 9 and got on an online chat line called Xanga, used by a lot of Asian-American kids.

In her note she called her teacher a bitch, a fat head, said she hated her, and wrote: "shez now the first person on my to kill list." She wrote it under an alias.

About a month later, on December 2, Yvette was called into the principal's office. A copy of her note had been placed in the named teacher's mailbox at school. Yvette admitted writing it.

Four days later, it was official. Yvette's father, Kevin Lacobie, received a notice from assistant principal Dave DeBlasio quoting from the chat-line message and informing him that his daughter was being kicked out of school for making a terroristic threat, a Level IV offense.

It seems another student, one not getting along with Yvette, had printed up a copy of her message, embellished it a bit with a few well-placed capital letters to draw emphasis to the salient points, signed Yvette's name to it and helpfully dropped it off at school.

Yvette was sentenced to 103 days at either the privately operated alternative school CEP (Community Education Partners) or online learning at the Virtual School.

It did no good for her father to point out that Yvette had no plans to kill anyone. It did no good to say "to kill" is a common _expression that many people use to express dislike, rather than deadly intent. It did no good to say that the note hadn't been written on school property or that the teacher would never have known about it -- let alone been placed "in fear of imminent serious bodily injury" -- if another student, out for revenge, hadn't delivered the doctored document.

Yvette had done a stupid teenage thing, and now she was going to pay for it. Big time. Because zero tolerance is the common law of the land in Texas. That exact phrase may not be included in any state regulations, but it's the law we live by.

Increasingly, however, people are saying that zero tolerance is heavy-handed, shortsighted and destroying too many young lives. And it's not just the black and Hispanic students and parents who've been bearing the brunt of an overzealous application of tough love who are willing to step up and yell.

It's more and more of those white Republicans, too.

Actually, a student doesn't have to be nearly as dramatic as Yvette to get tossed. And that's what has unified the opposition from all ethnic and income groups.

On January 20 there was a meeting of the Katy Zero Tolerance group whose membership is pretty much "400 white Republicans," according to leader Fred Hink. This was followed a week later by the first ever Texas Summit focusing on zero tolerance, pulled together in Austin by state Representative Dora Olivo.

At issue was Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code, the law governing what happens to students who are suspected of or who commit certain offenses. Now in its tenth year, it provides for punishment and alternative education when students are removed from their home school.

Common to both meetings were the sad, pathetic tales of lives disrupted by one misstep. A father told how his son, urged on by his mother, put on a jacket at the last minute to go to school, a Boy Scout knife in one of the pockets. It didn't matter that it was accidental, that the boy had never been in trouble, that he was a Boy Scout and a youth leader at his church. He was expelled.

Jo Ann Delgado, a justice of the peace in Harris County, told of a girl who came before her with too many unexcused absences. Turns out the girl didn't have money to buy school uniforms. The judge contacted an organization that provided the girl with five sets of uniforms. Great, the judge said, but why hadn't the school or a counselor there made that determination -- seems like it could have been solved before it got to her court and she was expelled.

In fact, when a school takes a student to court and a fine is assessed, the school district gets half. A nifty incentive plan for cash-strapped schools.

Olivo, a Democrat from Rosenberg, has been a leader in the fight against zero tolerance for several years. She feels many alternative schools provide a substandard education, and have been packed with minority and disabled children. She wants parents notified immediately when an accusation is being made instead of being told afterward about a done deal.

"In 1995, when Chapter 37 was passed, the intention was to get kids off the streets, not to punish them," Olivo said. "There was a great deal of fear during debate on this issue. You know what? A lot of those fears have been realized ten years later."

In a paper she wrote with James C. Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, she cited a national study done by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and Northwestern University's Institute on Race and Justice that documented that while African-Americans composed 17 percent of students nationally, they constituted 34 percent of students suspended. They are suspended at 2.6 times the rate for whites, and among students with disabilities, African-Americans are three times as likely as whites to be suspended.

For any student, time spent away from the home school usually translates into falling behind. As Jackie Cox, an attorney in Nacogdoches and Angelina counties, described it: "Sent back after three weeks or six weeks to regular school and the class is down the road and you don't know what's going on. You may get tutoring. You may not. Math and science, they're lost. Back in the alternative schools they have A averages. They know nothing."

Another speaker in Austin, M. Karega Rausch, a researcher with the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy through the University of Indiana-Bloomington, did a statewide study in Indiana. It showed that the top 10 percent of schools that use suspensions the most account for 51 percent of all suspensions in the state. He also found that 25 percent of teachers there accounted for two-thirds of all disciplinary referrals.

"A kid has a better chance by switching schools to one with a lower suspension rate than in changing his behavior," Rausch concluded. Some schools and teachers, he said, are overusing alternative schools.

Texas Summit keynote speaker and civil rights attorney Judith Browne of the Advancement Project said that in Houston there were more than 1,000 arrests in schools in 2001 and more than 4,000 in 2002. In Texas in grades one through four, there were more than 16,000 placements, 77 percent for discretionary reasons, she said.

With so many black and Hispanic students being more severely disciplined, Browne said, "Alternative schools are becoming the segregated schools of our century."

"Zero tolerance started with things like crack cocaine, guns and weapons in urban schools," Browne said. "Now it's Advil, Midol and an asthma inhaler. We are abandoning common sense."

Texas Senator Jon Lindsay, a Republican from Harris County, is making his second run at fine-tuning zero tolerance. His bill in the last legislative session cleared the Senate but failed in the House.

Lindsay's Senate Bill 126 would set as a requirement that a student "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly" commits an offense. It also requires that a determination be made as to whether a student had "the culpable mental state" required for an offense before punishment is ordered.

In Lindsay's April 2003 newsletter, the senator cited the example of a high school student expelled after a bread knife was discovered in his truck bed. "Apparently the student helped his grandmother move the previous day and the knife was accidentally left behind. While school administrators knew the student's intent was innocent, they were forced to expel him under the zero tolerance law."

In what would prove to be prescient foreshadowing (heavy on the organ music here), Lindsay wrote:

"Forcing schools to persecute students who are obviously innocent will not curtail violence. It will, instead, cause schools to regress as severe disciplinary policies begin to shadow education."

Flash forward to just last month in the Houston area and you have: a coach stabbed at Elkins High in Missouri City when he stepped into a student fight in which one kid was wielding a knife, and a sixth-grader at Passmore Elementary in Alvin ISD who brought a gun to school and shot himself in the leg.

As Fred Hink, president of the Katy Zero Tolerance group wryly noted, zero tolerance doesn't stop incidents like these.

What Lindsay wants to bring back into the process is more flexibility on the part of school districts. "In order for the public education system to retain a degree of respectability, schools must have ways to exercise discipline with discretion."

"We now believe that one in ten kids in Texas is overly punished or shouldn't have been punished at all," said Katy's Hink after studying the issue across the state. That's 10,000 kids a year in Texas.

"A child is caught being a child. Maybe we should just be closing the schools altogether," said Hink, who believes this aura of fear is pushing kids even further away from authority.

Hink believes the rights of parents have been greatly diminished under Chapter 37. He and the other speakers at the summit and Katy-area meeting emphasized they want safety and security in the schools. They just believe many schools and their officials have lost their minds when it comes to a reasonable interpretation of what is a teen's mistake and what is truly terrifying.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and a longtime advocate of setting strict standards for student behavior, chalked up any excesses to administrators who didn't know what they were doing.

Also, she pointed out, what happens in a suburban district is often on a completely different scale from the problems a teacher faces in an inner-city district where students may scream obscenities in a teacher's face or take a swing at them. She wants to make sure the teachers she represents are safe. Chances of her backing down on that are nil.

She is also a longtime supporter of Community Education Partners -- often a target for opponents of alternative schools for its history of noncertified teachers and habit of teaching by computer -- and insists that it does provide a quality education.

Others aren't so sure on that last point. In fact, right now one of the most effective tools HISD has for keeping kids in line is threatening them with a stay at CEP. And kids will tell you, administrators are using that.

Whether anything will change, in fact, is still up in the air. In contrast to Olivo and Lindsay, there's Representative Kent Grusendorf, a Republican from Arlington, whose House Bill 316 would make it a crime for a student to miss one day of school. Just one unexcused absence and the kid and his parents can be ticketed. The present policy is ten days in a six-month period.

And he may be able to get it through. Grusendorf is chair of the Public Education Committee in the House.

Another bill to watch out for is House Bill 158 from State Representative Phil King, a Republican from Weatherford. It would exempt exemplary districts from disciplinary reporting requirements to the state. Troublemakers could be shuffled off right and left to alternate education without anyone looking.

Olivo is asking the state to step back and take another look at the same time Texas has significantly cut funding for alternative programs from $18 million to $5 million a year. That's not going to mean any improvements.

Still, there have been some victories. Katy ISD responded to an overload of criticism. The use of on-campus alternative education switched back to in-school suspension. Previously, students might have been eligible for early return to the home school after 50 days. Now reviews are done at 30, 45 and 60 days.

Campus administrators are encouraged to make greater use of detentions rather than sending kids to in-school suspension or other alternative education that takes them out of class.

Most important, "students who unintentionally bring a prohibited item (that is not an illegal item) will not be disciplined if they turn in the item to a responsible adult immediately on discovery of the prohibited item."

And in a striking blow for something or other, flip-flops no longer will be prohibited.

Yvette Lacobie didn't go to CEP or Virtual School. She's being homeschooled and taking some Houston Community College courses. "I have to keep her looking forward," her father says.

Her father wasn't quite sure Virtual School was kosher. It's interesting that one of the district's better schools like Bellaire is offering this option, sparing students a tour at CEP. And also sparing high school officials the screams of outrage from more affluent parents when their children are ordered there.

Yvette Lacobie went to a good school and was a member of the National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, the swim team and her church choir, where she plays piano.

Parents hold these things as talismans. Extracurriculars and good grades seem to offer protections and assurances that will guarantee their children safe passage as they negotiate their teenage years.

But of course, they are nothing of the sort. A moment's lapse, a silly mistake, and it all is rendered quite beside the point.

houstonpress.com | originally published: February 17, 2005

Mind Reading : Is Yvette Lacobie really a terrorist? Did legislators really mean to kick kids out for a butter knife? Is zero tolerance really stupid? (No, maybe and yes.)
BY MARGARET DOWNING (margaret.downing@houstonpress.com)
© Houston Press, February 17, 2005