Learning How to Survive (at) CEP

HISD and a paid trustee get entangled in the spreading empire of a private firm touting safe alternative schools for troubled kids. So why are some students and parents so scared?

Fallon dismisses accounts of fighting at the school, saying, "What goes on here goes on in every school in the country." The kids are there "because of their disruptive, defiant behavior," she says. "They bring a lot of baggage with them. Sometimes in addition to struggling academically, they have a lot of anger, a lot of distrust. We just want to give them an opportunity."

She vehemently denies rumors that she is a consultant for CEP or is on its payroll. The reason she is present at CEP's campuses so often, she says, is because she's representing her membership, which includes all employees below management level, the noncertified as well as the certified teachers.

CEP did pay for her trip to Broward County, where she tried to help sell that Florida school district on the benefits of CEP. She says she was brought in at the request of Broward's superintendent, Frank Petruzielo, a former HISD superintendent with whom she had a cordial relationship. That was a onetime thing, she says, adding that she took a day off from her union job while engaged in CEP business.

She is an advocate of CEP, she says, not because she's getting any financial reward from it but because she believes it works for kids lost in a traditional school setting. In fact, her son, Jamie, an attorney, has represented members against CEP management.

Both Marshall and Fallon, in separate conversations, stress the feeling of safety that CEP students have. "Kids don't learn well when they don't feel safe," Marshall says.

Unfortunately, the CEP that Marshall and Fallon describe is worlds away from the one described by many students attending the alternative school. Whereas Marshall and Fallon (and CEP itself) portray a calm and enlightened environment offering kids hope for the future, students and their parents who complain about CEP relay tales of chaos, anarchy, physical and emotional punishment, and mind-numbing boredom.

Even acknowledging that most of these kids haven't prospered at any school -- and factoring in the usual "I hate school" philosophy of many teenagers as well as a propensity to exaggerate, the sheer number of similar accounts suggests strongly that something is amiss at CEP. The same stories are told over and over: teachers who can't teach, instructors swearing at students, frequent fights, low-level course work, students who nap throughout the day, broken computers, not to mention lost or "misplaced" records and completed assignments. And through it all, there is the question of whether these students are best served by having to sit out an entire school year, 180 days, away from their home schools no matter what the offense.

Either all the kids and parents that the Houston Presstalked with for the past several weeks are lying, or some of the well-intentioned supporters don't know what's really going on inside CEP. Other CEP boosters know about the problems but see them as part and parcel of the community they serve and either avoid discussing them or make excuses.

Joseph has missed almost a month of school. He's never there more than three hours before he calls his mom and begs her to come get him. She gives in about twice a week, and when she picks him up he's covered in bruises and crying, she says. A CEP counselor referred Joseph to a psychiatrist at DePelchin Children's Center. The psychiatrist prescribed Risperdal to calm him down before he goes to sleep, so he won't lie awake worrying about fights the next day, and Celexa to take in the morning so he can stomach the idea of going to school. Even with the drugs, Joseph still cries every night. "Life just sucks because I'm there," he says.

On a recent Friday, Joseph called home and begged Maria to pick him up. She didn't, and an hour later when a kid started hitting him, Joseph hit back, and got handcuffed and ticketed for fighting. This was his second on-campus arrest since he came to CEP last September. His mother says he has no criminal history and didn't start either fight.

"This place is a playground for the ones who are strong and a confinement for the weak ones," says Joseph's father, Ramon Flores. "Once you get down in there you're prey. I'm fed up with this -- I want my son out."

Joseph says teachers grab him by the arms, push him against the wall and regularly swear at him using phrases like "Sit your ass down" or "I'm tired of this shit."

Joseph was sent to CEP because whenever he finished his class work at Sharpstown Middle School he got a pass to use the restroom and wandered the halls. (A Press review of HISD records showed Sharpstown refers more students to CEP than any other school in the district. As of May 16, it had referred 72 students there out of 1,992 for the year. First runner-up was Jackson Middle School, with 59). Joseph says the principal promised that he could return to Sharpstown once his grades improved. "We shook on it," Joseph says sadly. Joseph was failing science; now he has a 93 average. He met with Sharpstown administrators three times, and they told him he has to finish his 180-day sentence.

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