By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Anna sits at home on her couch, a pretty girl with blond hair. She looks normal, although it is almost immediately obvious that something is half a click off, as evidenced by how she overarticulates her words and shows frequent flashes of temper.
Although Anna claims to have a high IQ, this high school freshman reads at the third- or fourth-grade level. Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, she is also bipolar and suffers from clinical depression. She couldn't read the Student Code of Conduct if it was handed to her gift-wrapped with a bow on top.
None of which made the slightest difference when the Klein Independent School District expelled her last spring, after she was found with two pills -- the prescription drugs Xanax and Concerta -- in her phys-ed locker. Of course, the district may not have known all this about her medical condition, since according to Anna, her parents and her attorney Elaine Roberts, Klein Collins High administrators never took the time to look at her file.
No in-district alternative school for her. Anna (none of the children or parents in this article wanted their real names used) and her parents were informed she was on her way to the Harris County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program, the county's high-security facility for hard-core offenders.
Told that the district had decided she should go to the JJAEP and not return to her home school until January 2005, Anna had to be hospitalized for a week.
Klein ISD is one of those districts taking zero tolerance to breathtaking levels and, in the process, has found a way to save itself -- but not taxpayers -- money. Misdemeanor offenses (the possession of a small amount of Valium, for instance) are enhanced to felonies by the district, saying it can do so because the illegal activity occurred on school grounds. Felonies translate to mandatory rather than discretionary expulsions.
The state, not the local school district, pays for mandatory placements at JJAEP. This means Klein is able to route kids to JJAEP and have the state pick up the tab of $9,900 a year. There's no pressure to get those kids back to their home school. It isn't costing the district anything.
In fact, according to state Representative Toby Goodman, who sponsored the legislation that guarantees an education for kids expelled from their home schools, school districts are making money on these deals.
In a district like Klein, he says, which probably gets 75 percent of the cost for each kid's education from local taxpayers, KISD still collects that money even if the student is at JJAEP. "And they're not having to pay anything out.
"You have to be real careful with school districts to make sure they're not doing that as a cost-saving device," Goodman says.
The Houston Press made repeated appeals to the offices of Klein's superintendent, Dr. James Cain, and to Associate Superintendent Dr. Jan Marek, to answer questions about its zero-tolerance and drug policies. Despite assurances that someone would be calling back, no one ever did.
JJAEP sets a minimum amount of time for its so-called discretionary students, kids whose offenses don't reach the top, or Category A, level, but whom the district feels need to go away for a while. JJAEP set up that minimum-stay policy to keep districts from using its facility as a revolving door by sticking kids there for only a few days.
"The district cannot use 'mandatory expulsion' to avoid payment and 'discretionary expulsion' to impose tougher penalties than prescribed ," attorney Elaine Roberts wrote in her appeal on Anna's behalf to the Klein ISD trustees. Students who are expelled for Category A offenses are supposed to be away from their home school only "until the earliest of the date they complete any court-imposed requirements."
And in Anna's case, she has no court requirement to be at JJAEP at all, Roberts points out.
But Klein isn't the only one managing its finances nicely through all this. Houston attorney Richard Hightower reviews any appeals and issues his rulings. The district incredibly enough touts him as an "independent arbitrator," even though it's the one paying him and it's one of the two parties in any such dispute. Hightower makes $2,500 to $5,000 for each case, billing at a rate of $175 per hour. In 2003 he was paid $5,413 by KISD. In 2004 he has been paid $7,178.
Kids who've had a Hightower review (and their referrals to JJAEP upheld) include an eighth-grader suffering from depression who began cutting herself after being placed at JJAEP and a ninth-grader with a history of mental illness who tried to kill herself after getting her JJAEP marching orders. Across the board, their grades dropped and their anxiety levels rose.
School district officials told Anna they were acting in her best interest by sending her to JJAEP.
"Oh, no, you're not. This is not my best interest," she told them.
Even with all their problems, these kids know BS when they hear it.
The JJAEP option was supposed to be a good one, a companion to the No Child Left Behind Act. After pleas from educators, some discretion was built into the model -- discretion that critics say districts such as Klein have exploited.