Mind Reading

Is Yvette Lacobie really a terrorist? Did legislators really mean to kick kids out for a butter knife? Is zero tolerance really stupid? (No, maybe and yes.)

Yvette Lacobie was steamed at one of her teachers at Bellaire High School. She felt like her Spanish teacher had been picking on her all year, and particularly so on that day.

So she did what a lot of teenagers do. She vented to her friends. She went home last November 9 and got on an online chat line called Xanga, used by a lot of Asian-American kids.

In her note she called her teacher a bitch, a fat head, said she hated her, and wrote: "shez now the first person on my to kill list." She wrote it under an alias.

Yvette Lacobie, booted from Bellaire High, is taking 
classes at Houston Community College.
Daniel Kramer
Yvette Lacobie, booted from Bellaire High, is taking classes at Houston Community College.

About a month later, on December 2, Yvette was called into the principal's office. A copy of her note had been placed in the named teacher's mailbox at school. Yvette admitted writing it.

Four days later, it was official. Yvette's father, Kevin Lacobie, received a notice from assistant principal Dave DeBlasio quoting from the chat-line message and informing him that his daughter was being kicked out of school for making a terroristic threat, a Level IV offense.

It seems another student, one not getting along with Yvette, had printed up a copy of her message, embellished it a bit with a few well-placed capital letters to draw emphasis to the salient points, signed Yvette's name to it and helpfully dropped it off at school.

Yvette was sentenced to 103 days at either the privately operated alternative school CEP (Community Education Partners) or online learning at the Virtual School.

It did no good for her father to point out that Yvette had no plans to kill anyone. It did no good to say "to kill" is a common expression that many people use to express dislike, rather than deadly intent. It did no good to say that the note hadn't been written on school property or that the teacher would never have known about it -- let alone been placed "in fear of imminent serious bodily injury" -- if another student, out for revenge, hadn't delivered the doctored document.

Yvette had done a stupid teenage thing, and now she was going to pay for it. Big time. Because zero tolerance is the common law of the land in Texas. That exact phrase may not be included in any state regulations, but it's the law we live by.

Increasingly, however, people are saying that zero tolerance is heavy-handed, shortsighted and destroying too many young lives. And it's not just the black and Hispanic students and parents who've been bearing the brunt of an overzealous application of tough love who are willing to step up and yell.

It's more and more of those white Republicans, too.

Actually, a student doesn't have to be nearly as dramatic as Yvette to get tossed. And that's what has unified the opposition from all ethnic and income groups.

On January 20 there was a meeting of the Katy Zero Tolerance group whose membership is pretty much "400 white Republicans," according to leader Fred Hink. This was followed a week later by the first ever Texas Summit focusing on zero tolerance, pulled together in Austin by state Representative Dora Olivo.

At issue was Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code, the law governing what happens to students who are suspected of or who commit certain offenses. Now in its tenth year, it provides for punishment and alternative education when students are removed from their home school.

Common to both meetings were the sad, pathetic tales of lives disrupted by one misstep. A father told how his son, urged on by his mother, put on a jacket at the last minute to go to school, a Boy Scout knife in one of the pockets. It didn't matter that it was accidental, that the boy had never been in trouble, that he was a Boy Scout and a youth leader at his church. He was expelled.

Jo Ann Delgado, a justice of the peace in Harris County, told of a girl who came before her with too many unexcused absences. Turns out the girl didn't have money to buy school uniforms. The judge contacted an organization that provided the girl with five sets of uniforms. Great, the judge said, but why hadn't the school or a counselor there made that determination -- seems like it could have been solved before it got to her court and she was expelled.

In fact, when a school takes a student to court and a fine is assessed, the school district gets half. A nifty incentive plan for cash-strapped schools.

Olivo, a Democrat from Rosenberg, has been a leader in the fight against zero tolerance for several years. She feels many alternative schools provide a substandard education, and have been packed with minority and disabled children. She wants parents notified immediately when an accusation is being made instead of being told afterward about a done deal.

"In 1995, when Chapter 37 was passed, the intention was to get kids off the streets, not to punish them," Olivo said. "There was a great deal of fear during debate on this issue. You know what? A lot of those fears have been realized ten years later."

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