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By Ben DuBose
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.
"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.
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."
Jenna did not thrive at JJAEP. "She was smarter than any of the teachers," her father says. "She'd fill out a test and they'd say, 'Take it again, that's too quick. That's all we're doing today.' Gave it back to her; that was her only work for the day." She rode the bus her first day. She was supposed to be back at 6:30 p.m. "The bus got here at 8:30 because one kid wised off to the bus driver; the bus driver took them back to school," Mac says.
A diagnostician and psychologist examined Jenna and diagnosed her with depression, Mac says. "An inability to build and maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers. Inappropriate behavior. A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression. Bipolar II disorder and severity of emotional disorder, severe," he recites, reading from the assessment.
The week before the ARD, Jenna's 14-year-old brother was killed in a farm accident. "So she's really bonkers now," her father says, tearing up. "He was riding in the front loader of my tractor and I hit a bump and he thumped his head. We put ice on it. He was fine. He went to sleep that night and never woke up."
Several psychiatrists who were brought into the ARD concluded that Jenna had been denied her rights by not having the ARD earlier. Those doctors recommended that she be reinstated under the federal laws protecting disabled students. "And that because of that she should be reinstated," Mac says.
Jenna is back in school in Klein now, escorted to and from her classes and to the bathroom. "They believe she is a suicide risk because of this whole thing," her father says.
"She's back in school only because they missed the ARD. Not because they admitted any mistakes or anything else," Mac says.
She's fallen behind in school. Her father says he doesn't care. She's out a lot now, seeing doctors. "I don't care if she misses a year of school," he says. "I want her to survive this. She's 15."
Toni, an eighth-grader at Strack Intermediate in Klein, had read in Seventeen magazine about college kids taking the amphetamine Adderall to help them study better, and since "I wasn't doing that great in my science class," she decided to give it a try. She had a friend at school with ADHD, so acquiring the drug wasn't difficult. She took one.
"It made me stay up all night, and for one day I felt thin," she says.
After a progress report with some bad grades, she was up for trying it again, and this time her friend Cara wanted in on it, too. Cara took her two capsules home and locked them in a box in her closet. Toni carried her pills around in her purse for two weeks before a classmate found them and turned her in to the office. Administrators found three Adderall tablets (30 milligrams), but the school nurse confirmed she was not under the influence of controlled substances.
According to Toni's parents, the following day, April 15, they were told things would be easier for their daughter if she cooperated. They urged her to do so; she met privately with Assistant Principal Robert Foster, who never mentioned to the parents that he'd taken a sworn statement from their daughter. This statement provided the basis for the expulsion. That was the same day that Cara got hauled down to the office. She asked to see her parents; school officials denied her request. She stayed in the office until she wrote a statement.
The girl who brought the drugs to school never confessed to anything. Cara's parents take some comfort in the fact that their daughter told the truth and that she didn't take the medication. However, in her handwritten statement, Cara did admit that she takes Adderall at home on test days because she thinks she has attention deficit disorder and her parents won't let her get tested for it.
Taken to the office on April 15, Toni went from there (in handcuffs) to the Klein police department and then the Harris County Sheriff's Office. On May 17 she was expelled, sent to JJAEP and continues there this fall. She spent some time in summer school, but once the district said it would not allow her to finish there and enroll in public high school starting in August, she dropped out.
Toni's mother, Marlene, later asked the girl who had informed on her daughter why she did it. The girl said she thought Toni had drugs and might need help. The school had drummed into her that students should let teachers know if they suspect anyone has drugs because then they can "get them help," Marlene says. The girl never thought Toni would be expelled, Marlene says.
Cara was suspended for three days, spent about a week in in-school suspension and spent the last two weeks of school in JJAEP, alongside a girl placed there for slashing another girl's face with a box cutter. Cara's mother says that JJAEP officials couldn't believe Cara was there. She was not prosecuted otherwise; there was no evidence.
Arbitrator Hightower, who did not return repeated calls from the Press, wrote in his review of Cara's case that the administration has the responsibility of preserving the safety of everyone in the district "by keeping controlled substances and dangerous drugs away from its campuses."
The family went to Austin and met with legislator Goodman, who told them this law was not intended for students like Cara. Reporting this statement to the Klein school board made no difference, her father says.
Now Cara is in a private school, biding her time until she can go to public high school in January.
The school district enhanced her offense to a third-degree felony because it happened on school property. Toni had a juvenile hearing before state District Judge Pat Shelton, who indicated he didn't feel she belonged at JJAEP, Roberts says. Even though Roberts told Klein of Shelton's comments, KISD officials would not shorten her expulsion. Marlene says a JJAEP administrator asked her what she was doing to get her daughter out of there. Despite the fact that JJAEP officials told Klein it would not be penalized for returning Toni before the minimum limitation time, they did not.
The district argued that the Memorandum of Understanding between it and the county sets a clear minimum on when a student has to be there. But Roberts argued that students like Toni shouldn't be held to those minimums.
Conceding that there was a contradiction in its own handbook -- in one part it states that Toni's type of expulsion would be limited to the last school year -- KISD said only that it would change the handbook to match the wording elsewhere, calling for expulsion though the fall semester.
Toni suffers from chronic depression, which Roberts says was obvious to the teachers at her school because of her writings. Following her expulsion, she began isolating herself and cutting herself, Roberts says. She is on antidepressants and going to a private therapist.
Whatever the costs of her extended stay at JJAEP, the Klein district is paying for none of it.
Actually, Toni is the only one of the four to have reached an accommodation at JJAEP. She likes the teachers, for the most part, and her mother believes she is safe there. "Academically, of course, that's another story," her mother says dryly.
Although Klein insists its hands are tied, that it is only doing what it must, across the board others say that isn't so. The district's own policy provides for a superintendent's discretion. And it is apparently invoked at least some of the time. Roberts found out about the case of a middle school boy found with marijuana and Adderall. He was taken to the police station in handcuffs, but ended up serving his five-month suspension at the Annex, the district's in-house alternative facility located next to Klein High School. Two girls found with felony drugs were sent to the Annex for short times.
The district's response from then-associate superintendent Jim Cain (now the superintendent) was that Klein had handled the cases appropriately. And, of course, he could not discuss them because of confidentiality issues.
Goodman says he has looked at some of the cases being contested with Klein and "if their stories are anywhere near right, in my opinion this is just totally inappropriate.
"They're not serving the kids, and they're not serving their other students by doing this."
At this point, he is resigned to legislating change in the next session, not because he wants to, but because he sees no way around it.
So what do these Klein parents want? All thought their daughters should be punished; none to this extent. All called for a better drug education program in Klein; until this year it stopped after fifth grade. Now there is a program in place called "Wise Up." All scoffed at the notion that announcing the penalties for offenses over the public address system one day at school makes for an effective antidrug policy.
On one semi-bright note, Anna is now back in school at the Annex. This came after Roberts filed a motion for a stay put order with the Texas Education Agency, arguing that Anna was denied due process in her expulsion. Roberts and KISD reached an agreement that allows Anna to stay on campus until her case is heard by the TEA.
Other districts initially went too far with zero tolerance and got blasted for it in the media, Goodman says. "They would call me and say they have to do this. And they don't have to do that. I've had multiple conversations with attorneys throughout the state, and we've pulled up the code and walked through it.
"Nobody from Klein has contacted me.
"They wanted the discretion, they got the discretion, and now they're abusing the discretion. And that's not what they need to be doing. They need to be thinking about the best interests of the child."