Klein students are on a fast track to expulsion, thanks to a district that's figured a way to get someone else to pick up the tab for alternative education

"I understand the mind-set for zero tolerance, but in my opinion that's pushing that way too far," Goodman says of Klein. "I guess I'm at fault, because when we put Chapter 37 of the education code together, we were assured by the Texas Association of School Boards and Superintendents that this would not be used in that manner."

The Republican legislator from Tarrant County says that for minor infractions, an on-campus suspension or a district alternative education program is much more appropriate than placing those children for multiple semesters in a JJAEP.

"If they want the discretion, they need to use it more wisely. And if they don't want the discretion, we can mandate. I'd prefer not to do that, but Klein is giving me all kinds of problems on this," Goodman says.

Al Cameron
Al Cameron

Roberts agrees. She says she has worked things out with other districts but has met a brick wall with Klein. "What was supposed to protect the kids is now being used to punish them," she charges.

State funding for JJAEP is provided through the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission for Category A students. But Category B is paid for by the district, which reserves anticipated spaces each year at the rate of $55 a day. Additional daily spaces are $73. If a district doesn't use all its spaces, it gets a refund.

In the 2001-2002 fiscal year, records show, Klein ISD paid $111,439 to Harris County for students at the JJAEP. That moved to $158,681 the next fiscal year and to $145,153 in 2003-2004.

Those amounts would have been even higher if the district hadn't enhanced the punishments so that more of the kids were classified so the state would pay the costs.

Although the Student Code of Conduct outlines an appeals process, in actuality the procedure is a rubber stamp of prior decisions. Several parents say previous superintendent Dr. Jim Surratt told them it didn't matter that he didn't attend appeals hearings (scheduled by the superintendent's office) and didn't listen to the whole tape recording of them, because he never overturned lower district decisions to send kids to the county juvenile facility.

This summer, out of 30 girls at JJAEP, ten -- 30 percent -- were from Klein, Roberts says.

Rather than send their children to JJAEP, parents have limited options for their kids. They can be homeschooled, they can try to get into a private school (most private schools won't take them), or they can try moving to another district (which also may not accept them, since their expulsion order follows them).

Jenna was in ROTC class at Klein Oaks High School when a classmate showed off some pills he'd brought from home. Concerned, terrified he'd be in trouble, four kids split up the pills and took them home. Jenna, an honors student who'd never seen Valium before, took a pill and a half and flushed them down the toilet.

"That was day one," her father, Mac, recounts at his kitchen table. "Day two, the kid who brought the stuff comes to school and it appears he really has taken something. Two of the other kids are worried about him and take him to the nurse. They want to help their friend; they tell her, 'We think he may have taken something, but we want to stay anonymous.' They're told, 'No problem. We just need your names for the report,' "Mac says.

School officials tell Jenna she's in no trouble, just tell us what you know; we're worried about this kid. Jenna, in tears, asks to call home, but her request is denied until she signs a statement, her father says. Suspended for three days, ultimately all four are expelled.

From the very beginning of this case, Roberts asked for an ARD (admission, review and dismissal) hearing for Jenna, which is required for special education students before they can be expelled. Six months before this, Jenna had been in a mental facility for depression. "And the school knew that. She was in for a week. No way the school didn't know," Mac says. Requested in April, the ARD hearing finally happened in June, after Mac called the school and said, "When are we going to have this?"

"They said, 'We would have liked to have done it, but we didn't know where she went to school.' They didn't know where she was. They lost her," Mac says. She had been at JJAEP, as the school district had directed.

A psychiatrist wrote that Jenna had been hospitalized in early May after trying to kill herself because of her school situation. The psychiatrist asked that she not be sent to JJAEP because of "the instability of her moods and very fragile condition."

In June, Hightower reviewed her case, and even he conceded that "assignment to JJAEP may have an adverse effect on [Jenna's] well-being." And as Hightower himself pointed out, Jenna didn't bring the drug to school, she didn't deliver it to anyone else, she didn't take the drug, she flushed it.

But Hightower approved her continued placement, saying he was "mindful of the administration's responsibility to remain consistent in the application of student discipline when enforcing drug violations."

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