By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
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Brenda Jones wasn't supposed to have a chance. When her son was arrested last February for having marijuana on campus, Bellaire High School principal Bill Lawson said he had no discretion -- the Level IV offense meant the sophomore would have to go the district's alternative education campus for an entire school year. There was nothing Jones could do about it.
Kirk and Rayette Fulk's son, Drew, was also sentenced to the privately owned Community Education Partners campus on Beechnut in the same marijuana roundup. And he too was looking at the term of 180 school days that CEP had said was so important to the success of its troubled students. It didn't matter how well Drew behaved in CEP. It didn't matter that the sentence would extend past the end of the semester, past the end of the year and into the next school year. This was the Houston Independent School District's rock-solid stand, policy formed to get bad kids out of good schools -- a policy, many say, designed to meet a goal of 2,500 kids directed to CEP for the 2000-2001 school year in a $17.9 million contract.
Except that last Thursday, after six months of legal fighting and scratching and hustling, after refusing to accept the inevitable, after depositions and a trip to the Legislature in Austin, the no-chance, too-bad folks won a big one.
HISD took it in the shorts. Kaye Stripling and company signed a settlement agreement that gets the Jones and the Fulk boys out of CEP's lockdown with its self-paced computers and non-certified staff. They would instead return to their home schools, which they did this past Monday. And HISD would pay their attorneys' fees which totaled $16,000. It's unknown how much HISD spent on the losing legal representation it received from the prestigious firm of Bracewell & Patterson. Taxpayers will get to pick up that tab, too. There were no punitive damages because the Joneses and the Fulks never asked for them. They just wanted to get their kids out of what they saw as an academic wasteland.
And all they'd have to do in return was promise on behalf of themselves and their heirs never to sue HISD in this matter again.
Game, set and match to the little guys. Make that the relentless little guys.
It all hung on that little matter of discretion. That and the providential use of a tape recorder.
"The case in a nutshell was that before the kids could be removed Bill Lawson had to make two specific findings," says Kirk Fulk, father and one of the two attorneys in the case. "The only problem was, he never did it."
According to HISD's Code of Conduct, the principal must determine one of two things:
The student's presence in the regular classroom program or at the home school presents a danger of physical harm to the student or other individuals; or
The student has engaged in serious or persistent misbehavior that violates the district's Code of Student Conduct. Serious offenses are those that substantially disrupt or materially interfere with the orderly process in the classroom, HISD transportation, the school, or any school-related activity. Persistent shall be defined as chronic or repeated instances of Level II and higher misconduct.
Yet when the Fulks met with Lawson (who unexpectedly resigned his position as Bellaire High principal last week) right after the marijuana incident to challenge whether Drew's offense met the district criteria for "serious misbehavior," they say Lawson told them he did not have to make such a finding.
In a May 31 letter provided to state District Judge Harvey Brown, Lawson insisted he did make a "finding." However, the Fulks had taped the earlier session with Lawson -- and the recording hardly seems to support Lawson's version. In it Lawson says that because they've committed a "Level 4" offense "there's not an option." Later he says: "I don't see I have a choice in the removal." When Kirk Fulk says he is not arguing that his son should not be punished, but he thinks the removal term is too long, Lawson responds: "Length of removal is based on HISD's choice of an AEP (Alternative Education Placement) is a contractual agreement with the Community Educational Partner setting." And Lawson goes on to say that "CEP removal is 180 days." In fact he makes this statement several times during their conversation recorded by the Fulks.
Which becomes all the more interesting because during the subsequent legal proceedings before Judge Brown, HISD asserts the 180 days is not absolute. Which flies directly in the face of all the statements HISD officials and CEP officials and their own literature have made for the last several years, defending their policy of a 180-day placement. Apparently all those statements and documents have been declared inoperative -- at least for the purposes of this hearing.
"If Brenda and I had not taped our conversations with Bill Lawson we would have been screwed," Fulk says.
This wasn't the only hit that HISD took this summer regarding CEP.
Responding to a complaint letter from Brenda Jones, the Texas Education Agency's Billy Jacobs, senior director for the state's Safe Schools program wrote in a June 24 letter that if HISD was frequently putting kids in alternative schools for 180 days, that "there should be policy statements authorizing this practice."
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