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The way 17-year-old Adriana Garza remembers it, her first visit to jail was one big, ugly surprise. It all began on the morning of September 27, as her schoolmates at Sam Houston Senior High were making their usual migration from class to class. Garza and her friend Veronica DeLeon were passing a clump of younger girls when one of them lunged forward and slugged Veronica. "She hit her back. A crowd started gathering, then someone pushed me to the floor," Garza recalls. "When I tried to pick up my books, someone grabbed my hair .... I couldn't fight back, everything happened so fast."
Not too fast, though, for two HISD police officers to wade into the dust-up, handcuff six girls, including Garza, and whisk them to Sam Houston's "security room" for discipline cases. Then, Garza says, without so much as taking a statement, the school officers summoned the Houston Police Department to take the three girls who were over 17, and therefore adults in the eyes of the law, to the city jail.
Garza says she waited behind bars for about eight hours before her parents managed to bail her out. Now, in addition to coming up with $150 bond, she says, her working-class family is having to pay a lawyer to represent her at her March court date. The charges: public fighting and disrupting school activities, both Class C misdemeanors. Garza professes to be bewildered by the entire episode. Not only does she claim to be innocent, but she says neither she nor her Sam Houston friends were previously aware that they could be locked up for fighting. "The HISD security guards said they work with HPD now, and they're going to take [all students caught fighting] who are 17 and older to jail," Garza says. "Last year, there was a lot of fights, but nobody ever went to jail."
If incarcerating students for punching and hair pulling sounds a little extreme, however, Sam Houston principal Ben Azios says there's more to it than Garza lets on. A bulky, raspy-voiced man with a disarmingly intense gaze, Azios has been at Sam Houston now for a year and a half. Student arrest, he says, is a long-standing, HISD-authorized disciplinary tool, and he says it's been used to curb fighting at Sam Houston for years. If jail is what it takes to keep some students from disrupting their classmates' studies, Azios says, jail is what he uses. Seventeen-year-olds who are caught fighting are dealt a suspension, then handed over to the HPD. And, Azios says, his students, including Adriana Garza, all know the policy perfectly well.
Shirley Johnson, who is the principal of Westbury Senior High on the southwest side and once held the same position at Sam Houston, also believes students at the north-side school know what's in store when they fight. Although there are no figures for how often it happens, school police have been able to ticket and arrest disruptive students since 1989. The HISD principals Johnson knows, she says, use the arrest option routinely.
"Principals may not like to talk about it, but they're doing it," Johnson says. "Some schools, particularly in the suburbs, may like to say everything's rosy, but they [have students arrested], too. I know I do." This school year, Johnson has sent two students who are over 17 to jail for fighting. And while she doesn't like putting them behind bars, she says her responsibility is to the majority of Westbury's 2,500 students, who are there to learn.
But although Johnson has used jail as a disciplinary tool for more than a decade, she also says that she's presided over far more arrests in the past five years than previously. She thinks that is true for her colleagues, too. In part, that reflects HISD's increasingly stern attitude toward violence, backed by this year's toughened disciplinary code and last May's revised state education code. Both reflect a principle called "zero tolerance" and boost administrators' abilities to get disruptive students away from their peaceful peers. And, Johnson says, today there are simply more students fighting, and more gangs to find things to fight about. Azios, she speculates, simply may be cracking down more visibly after the year and a half he's had to size up his school's problems.
Still, Adriana Garza was not the only one surprised by Sam Houston's arrest strategy. Bobbie Smith, who heads the school's Parent-Teacher Association, admits she'd never heard of it. And Azios himself gets noticeably itchy discussing specifics: he won't, for example, say precisely how HISD decided Garza was guilty, and he also maintains he has no idea exactly how many students he's had jailed for fighting, even though he personally authorizes all arrests at the school. When pressed, however, the principal allowed that the number has been more than a dozen in the current school year.
When they first cooled their heels in the malodorous dayroom of the city jail, Garza says, she and her two schoolmates were nearly alone. As the morning wore on, though, the place began filling up, and to Garza's surprise, the public drinkers, traffic scofflaws and shoplifters who shared the room were very sociable. Mostly, they were curious about the girls' predicament. When they were in high school, the women said, no one ever locked them up for fighting.