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.)

In a paper she wrote with James C. Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, she cited a national study done by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and Northwestern University's Institute on Race and Justice that documented that while African-Americans composed 17 percent of students nationally, they constituted 34 percent of students suspended. They are suspended at 2.6 times the rate for whites, and among students with disabilities, African-Americans are three times as likely as whites to be suspended.

For any student, time spent away from the home school usually translates into falling behind. As Jackie Cox, an attorney in Nacogdoches and Angelina counties, described it: "Sent back after three weeks or six weeks to regular school and the class is down the road and you don't know what's going on. You may get tutoring. You may not. Math and science, they're lost. Back in the alternative schools they have A averages. They know nothing."

Another speaker in Austin, M. Karega Rausch, a researcher with the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy through the University of Indiana-Bloomington, did a statewide study in Indiana. It showed that the top 10 percent of schools that use suspensions the most account for 51 percent of all suspensions in the state. He also found that 25 percent of teachers there accounted for two-thirds of all disciplinary referrals.

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.

"A kid has a better chance by switching schools to one with a lower suspension rate than in changing his behavior," Rausch concluded. Some schools and teachers, he said, are overusing alternative schools.

Texas Summit keynote speaker and civil rights attorney Judith Browne of the Advancement Project said that in Houston there were more than 1,000 arrests in schools in 2001 and more than 4,000 in 2002. In Texas in grades one through four, there were more than 16,000 placements, 77 percent for discretionary reasons, she said.

With so many black and Hispanic students being more severely disciplined, Browne said, "Alternative schools are becoming the segregated schools of our century."

"Zero tolerance started with things like crack cocaine, guns and weapons in urban schools," Browne said. "Now it's Advil, Midol and an asthma inhaler. We are abandoning common sense."

Texas Senator Jon Lindsay, a Republican from Harris County, is making his second run at fine-tuning zero tolerance. His bill in the last legislative session cleared the Senate but failed in the House.

Lindsay's Senate Bill 126 would set as a requirement that a student "intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly" commits an offense. It also requires that a determination be made as to whether a student had "the culpable mental state" required for an offense before punishment is ordered.

In Lindsay's April 2003 newsletter, the senator cited the example of a high school student expelled after a bread knife was discovered in his truck bed. "Apparently the student helped his grandmother move the previous day and the knife was accidentally left behind. While school administrators knew the student's intent was innocent, they were forced to expel him under the zero tolerance law."

In what would prove to be prescient foreshadowing (heavy on the organ music here), Lindsay wrote:

"Forcing schools to persecute students who are obviously innocent will not curtail violence. It will, instead, cause schools to regress as severe disciplinary policies begin to shadow education."

Flash forward to just last month in the Houston area and you have: a coach stabbed at Elkins High in Missouri City when he stepped into a student fight in which one kid was wielding a knife, and a sixth-grader at Passmore Elementary in Alvin ISD who brought a gun to school and shot himself in the leg.

As Fred Hink, president of the Katy Zero Tolerance group wryly noted, zero tolerance doesn't stop incidents like these.

What Lindsay wants to bring back into the process is more flexibility on the part of school districts. "In order for the public education system to retain a degree of respectability, schools must have ways to exercise discipline with discretion."

"We now believe that one in ten kids in Texas is overly punished or shouldn't have been punished at all," said Katy's Hink after studying the issue across the state. That's 10,000 kids a year in Texas.

"A child is caught being a child. Maybe we should just be closing the schools altogether," said Hink, who believes this aura of fear is pushing kids even further away from authority.

Hink believes the rights of parents have been greatly diminished under Chapter 37. He and the other speakers at the summit and Katy-area meeting emphasized they want safety and security in the schools. They just believe many schools and their officials have lost their minds when it comes to a reasonable interpretation of what is a teen's mistake and what is truly terrifying.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers and a longtime advocate of setting strict standards for student behavior, chalked up any excesses to administrators who didn't know what they were doing.

Also, she pointed out, what happens in a suburban district is often on a completely different scale from the problems a teacher faces in an inner-city district where students may scream obscenities in a teacher's face or take a swing at them. She wants to make sure the teachers she represents are safe. Chances of her backing down on that are nil.

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