Watching You

Katy ISD students better be really good, or there will be hell to pay

A Diet Coke shared among friends was enough to undo 12-year-old Alyssa Nemec's life.

The seventh-grader at Garland T. McMeans Junior High went to the gym before first bell on September 24. She joined some friends, including an eighth-grader holding the soda. Offered a sip, Alyssa took one and said it tasted bad.

It was spiked with alcohol. Alyssa hustled away immediately.

Steven Avary was sentenced to eight weeks in 
alternative school for bringing home a pocketknife.
Photo courtesy of Mary Van Der Loop
Steven Avary was sentenced to eight weeks in alternative school for bringing home a pocketknife.

Word got around and she was called to the office later that day. She told what had happened, adding that she was not aware of the alcohol in the drink before she sipped it. According to her mother, Alyssa thought she was aiding school administrators find out the truth and getting help for the eighth-grader.

"As soon as my daughter said, 'Yes, I took a drink,' they shut down and didn't listen to anything else she had to say," Cindy Nemec says.

Alyssa was handed a ticket -- minor in possession of alcohol by consumption -- and was suspended. This was followed by 60 school days in an alternative education center operated by the Katy Independent School District.

The A and B student was told her cheerleading days were over for that year and the next. While housed at the "Opportunity Awareness Center" in Katy, she was not allowed to attend any KISD-sponsored events. Her brother was playing his senior year of football; she couldn't go watch.

She has a class C misdemeanor on her record. In court she got three months' probation, six hours of an alcohol awareness class and eight hours of community service. This was the same punishment dealt to the eighth-grader who brought the alcohol to school. No less.

A good record and testimonials from teachers changed nothing. Alyssa went to a school with metal detectors and handheld scanners. She had to wait each day for a security guard to escort her if she wanted to use the restroom.

When she came back to McMeans, one teacher turned her back on her. She had trouble fitting in; instead of the bright preppy clothes she wore before, she was dressing in black. Her grades suffered, not a surprise since statewide statistics show that kids who spend long amounts of time in alternative centers regularly fall behind once they return to the more rigorous coursework in regular school.

No one ever advised Alyssa that what she said might incriminate her. After her interrogation, she was told to clean out her locker. She sat in the office for at least two more hours before her parents were called. Even if she had been found not guilty in the courtroom, the school punishment is independent of that proceeding and would have been the same.

According to statistics from the Texas Education Agency, Katy ISD hands out more punishments than most districts in the state. It has a good reputation for safety and high academic standards. But an increasing number of parents are charging it with serious deficits in common sense and compassion.

It's always remarkable to watch something like the Nemec situation unfold. Some people say the school badly overreacted. Others applaud the get-tough approach, a philosophy that's been embraced across the country since Columbine. Make no mistake, this is not a battle of the world against Katy ISD. This is a conflict between some parents and the district, parents who are still struggling to enlist others in their cause.

Cindy Nemec thought her daughter's treatment was over the top. School officials said they had witnesses casting a less innocent light on Alyssa's imbibing, but according to Cindy Nemec, the school wouldn't listen to other kids supporting her daughter. Kris Taylor, KISD spokeswoman, says the district would be glad to tell what its investigation revealed, but the Nemecs won't give their permission to make it public. "At this time there's really nothing I can say other than the investigation showed that this punishment was appropriate," Taylor says.

Cindy Nemec began collecting other stories, the best known of which is the case of the Korean pencil sharpener. Young Christina Lough received seven days of in-school suspension and was removed as president of the National Junior Honors Society and student council at McMeans because she brought a pencil sharpener to school on October 8 that officials deemed a weapon.

Christina's mother, Sumi, brought the sharpener that resembles a penknife and has a two-inch blade, back from a trip to South Korea. Christina had brought it to school for some time, unnoticed. A classmate of Christina's borrowed it during a quiz and left it out on her desk. The next day, the assistant principal called the Loughs, saying Christina had committed a Level III offense.

The Loughs pleaded that their daughter had no intention of hurting anyone, that there had been a misunderstanding due to cultural differences. Nothing worked. They filed a lawsuit against the district last October 14.

KISD took a lot of criticism for its stance. But Taylor insists it was right, no matter how unpopular. "If you looked at that thing, it was really a very highly sharpened blade," Taylor says. "If you just laid it down and asked ten people if it could be used as a weapon, nine of them would say 'absolutely.'"

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