Chapter 2: Zero Tolerance as a Weapon
Jordan was 11 years old when this whole process began. When he first learned that we were not going to be able to move and therefore he would have to attend the school which had adopted a uniform policy, he said to me, “Mom, why do they think it only matters what’s on the outside, when you’ve always taught me it’s what’s on the inside that counts?” I thought this was a very profound statement coming from a child his age. From that moment on, he was the driving force behind my pursuing the grievance in an effort to retain my parental rights and protect the rights of my child. School administrators do not have the right to teach my child moral or religious beliefs. Yet, in this instance, that is exactly what they were doing. And they were not teaching just any belief, but a set of beliefs that directly conflicted with those I had instilled in my child from a very early age. My belief system would be continually tested from that point on.
As I said in my Level 3 hearing before the board, PISD children have been taught, by the Policy, that if someone dresses different from them, they are not as good as they are, they do not belong, and to pressure them by any means to conform. Jordan did not “buy into” PISD's philosophy of “the clothes make the man” and he was very outspoken about it. I am so very proud of him for that. For the first week of school, Jordan wore his own choice of, appropriate for school, clothing. As a direct result, beginning on August 9, 2002, my son was subjected to daily harassment, discrimination and physical attacks by his fellow students and the PISD administration, for being “different.” Although he later conformed to the uniform policy, albeit under protest, he continued to suffer, while PISD administration did nothing to help or protect him. In fact, PISD administration and staff participated in the harassment and retaliation.
Jordan was punished for everything from the “wrong shade of blue” to running water in the bathroom; and, not just “mild” punishment, either. Jordan was subjected to days on end of detention and in school suspension (“ISS”) for these severe (according to PISD) offenses. He was even punished for pronouncing PISD phonetically (even though, after repeated requests, Ms. Cain could not show me in the student handbook where this was an offense). In short, when it was clear that PISD could not scare me, Jordan became their defenseless target. When detention and ISS did not get the desired results (the end of the grievance process), PISD raised the price of poker.
One day, when PISD attempted to make Jordan serve an 8 hour ISS that he had already served, I refused to let him. I demanded that I be allowed to talk to him. When he came to the phone, I told him to gather his things and walk home. He had already been counted present for the day. He did as I instructed. On his way home, PISD had him arrested and charged with truancy. This would be the first in a series of ridiculous charges PISD would file against Jordan. These charges were eventually dropped, but not before we spent thousands of dollars and countless hours defending these baseless charges. After this incident, I asked that Jordan be transferred to another PISD campus, in hopes that a “fresh start” would change his outlook. However, every PISD campus is run by the same administration. Therefore, we could not escape the abuse.
At the new campus, Jordan was again “picked on” by kids for being “different”. Jordan reported these incidents, as instructed, to no avail. PISD’s retaliation escalated to new heights in January, 2002. In PE class, one boy pushed another boy into Jordan, knocking him down. Again, as instructed, Jordan reported this incident to the PE coach. The PE coach’s response to this was to send the boys to run laps. Jordan ran his laps, while the other 2 boys walked. Each time Jordan passed them, they would taunt him and dare him to “fight them”. Jordan refused. When Jordan finished running his required laps, he went off to the side of the track, alone, to play in the dirt with some sticks. The other two boys came up to Jordan, threatening him, saying things like “we’re going to kick your ass,” “you’re chicken if you don’t fight us,” and “we’re going to punch you in the stomach.” Jordan was very frightened. He was outnumbered. He knew better than to get into a fight with them. He had already reported the earlier assault by these to boys, to no avail. All he knew was that he wanted the boys to go away, without incident. So, Jordan told them, “No you won’t, ‘cause I’m gonna hit you with this stick.” The boys ran away. Jordan achieved the desired result, without resorting to violence, or even offering to swing the stick in his hand. He thought he had done the right thing, and so did we. We could not have been more wrong.
The two boys went to the coach and told him that Jordan was threatening them. Jordan was called to the principal’s office, where he was given a punishment of 3 days SAC (an off-campus isolation). The other boys received nothing. We were very upset with this punishment. However, we felt as though we could do nothing about it. The cards were stacked against us. Jordan was a target. PISD was not going to stop coming after him unless I stopped pursuing my grievance. We explained to Jordan that, while this punishment was unfair, it was the way things were going to be until we could resolve this grievance. I asked him if he wanted me to stop fighting. He said emphatically, “NO!” He would take this punishment, and make every effort to avoid any situations that might be harmful to him in the future. Apparently, this would not be satisfactory to PISD.
Jordan served 2 of his 3 days of SAC without incident, completing all his assignments. He was serving his third day (Friday, February 1, 2002) when a police officer came to the SAC building and arrested him. I did not know about this, and would not have known if not for the kindness of a stranger. God bless that man. The SAC teacher called me at work to tell me that the police had come and picked up my son. As you might imagine, I was in SHOCK. I could not believe what I was hearing. For what? What had happened? For thirty panicked minutes, I attempted to locate my child. I finally found him at the Pearland Police Station.
Jordan was being interrogated without a parent present. God bless him for not telling them anything, not even his name. He was terrified. He was crying. He was shaking. He was hysterical. The police officer questioning him was angry, and threatening him with keeping him there much longer if he continued to refuse to answer their questions. I told the police officer that I had instructed Jordan not to talk to strangers, not even policemen. I told the officer that if he had any questions, he needed to direct them to me. The officer was very upset by this. He then told me that he was transporting Jordan to Brazoria County Juvenile Detention Center for processing. My heart dropped. I demanded to know why. The officer told me that Jordan had been charged with terroristic threat and assault. The officer also told me that it wouldn’t do me any good to come down there, because I couldn’t see my son until they were finished “processing” him. I sent someone anyway. My boyfriend of 3 years, Doug Browning, went straight to the facility and waited to see Jordan. Doug was finally able to see Jordan, sometime after noon. However, we were told then that Jordan might be held over the weekend. We were panic-stricken and very scared for Jordan. Even the parole officer processing him agreed that Jordan did not belong there. Thanks in part to her kindness, we were able to get Jordan out of there that day, just before five o’clock.
I withdrew Jordan from PISD the following Monday, February 4, 2002. I had finally conceded that Jordan was not safe on any PISD campus. For Jordan’s safety, I rented an apartment in a neighboring district. Jordan started school in his new district on February 5, 2002. Also that week following his second arrest, Jordan was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”). We have been in counseling ever since. Still, we knew this saga was far from over.
While PISD was asserting these false charges, I was still pursuing the original grievance. The local grievance process, followed by the TEA process is arduous. One would have to be an administrative law professional, or partner at Bracewell & Patterson, to navigate those troubled waters. My understanding of TEC 11.162 and TEC Chapter 26 paints a very different picture. Maybe I am naïve, but it was my understanding of those statutes that one does not have to be a legal professional, or hire expensive legal counsel, to seek remedy under those statutes. However, that has not been my experience at all. Even with a dogged pursuit of what I consider to be justice for my family, I have still fallen short. We have spent thousands of dollars, countless hours, taken unpaid time off work, and have yet to have resolution. We have had an enormous amount of support from friends and family. There are so many people that have assisted this effort that it would be impossible to name them all. PISD (according to records we have received so far) has spent in excess of $30,000 defending their seemingly defenseless uniform policy. For a district that is supposedly “financially strapped,” I cannot fathom why they would support such spending. Yet, even now, as I document my story to this point, we are still awaiting a decision from the Commissioner of Education; and our outlook is bleak. If you are attempting to do the math in your head, that is 15 months of suffering for my family, with no resolution.
In October of 2002, the Brazoria County District Attorney’s Office finally dismissed the baseless charges against Jordan of terroristic threat and assault. But, only after we hired a criminal defense attorney, and prepared for trial. The D.A.’s office offered several ridiculous “deals”. However, when it was apparent to the D.A.’s office that, not only were we not going to settle (which meant admitting guilt), but that we were ready and willing to take this case to trial, they immediately dismissed the case (less than a week from the trial date). These charges should never have been brought in the first place. In my opinion, PISD is guilty of malicious prosecution and a whole host of other charges. When asked why she filed the charges against Jordan (who had already served what we thought was his punishment in SAC), the principal told me that she had to “teach him a lesson.” As I told her then, her job was not to teach. She was an administrator, not a teacher. I also told her, and still believe now, I’m not sure what lesson she wanted to teach, but I know one of the lessons she did teach. She taught Jordan that sometimes he could not trust the very people he had been taught to trust (i.e. policeman, school administration and staff).
I have done everything I know to do. I have protested silently with buttons and armbands. I have picketed. I have had meetings with PISD administration, staff and Board of Trustees. I have participated in petition drives. I have participated in campaigning for School Board elections (even managing to successfully remove one of the board members that arbitrarily imposed the current uniform policy). I have met with State Representatives. I have followed FNG(local) to the letter, only to find out that if you don’t know everything there is to know at the time of your level 1, 2 and 3, then that is all you can present to the TEA. In other words, it is unlike any other litigation, especially where the discovery process is concerned. I have met with the Mayor of Pearland. I have spoken to countless reporters and media personnel. I have contacted the ACLU. I have contacted my local representatives, and never received a response. I have been robbed of hundreds of hours of quality time with my son, yet there is still no resolution.
I want so much for this ordeal to be over, but I fear so much that it won’t be (anytime soon). All I ever asked for was what was fair and just under the law. I asked for PISD to follow the law, respect my parental rights, and the rights of my child. I did not ask for my family to be attacked, retaliated against, and to spend the last 15 plus months fighting to protect the rights I thought were guaranteed. I never wanted to engage in costly, time-consuming litigation. I still don’t. However, I honestly do not see any other way to ensure that our rights will not continue to be violated. That is, unless the legislation is revised. The Governor and our legislators have the ability to right this terrible wrong, enforce TEC 11.162 as the authors originally intended, and send a message to school districts that trampling on parental rights is unacceptable.
School districts across Texas continue to ignore the intent of TEC 11.162 by calling their mandatory uniform policy a standardized dress code in public, all the while continuing to refer to them as uniforms in private. In fact, many school districts use the terms interchangeably while continuing to thumb their noses at the legislature. To borrow a phrase, if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it’s a duck!
This is just one family’s story. I am praying that the Governor and the legislature consider all the families in similar situations as ours, and that they follow the law and their conscience. I believe if they do, they will first, sponsor an amendment to TEC 11.162, correcting the defect that some school districts, like PISD, are taking advantage of. Second, they will implement a checks and balances system to ensure that school districts are following the laws that are in place to protect parents and their children. Third, provide parents with an advocate to inform them of the procedures involved in pursuing a grievance. Last, revise the grievance process to include reasonable deadlines in order to ensure parents resolution to their grievance within the current school year. When these changes are made, they will undoubtedly end our suffering at the hands of our corrupt local government and restore our faith in the system.