Home Alone

A raid on an end-of-year teen party leads to heavy-duty punishments and angry parents

"Police claimed there were huge amounts of alcohol," explains school district spokesman Mary Ann Simpson. "Just being at the party shows they broke the rules."

As a result, four of the school's top baseball players, including Hrbacek and three other seniors recruited to play in college, were told they could not suit up just days before the start of the playoffs. The team's season abruptly ended in the first round.

"We were devastated," Byron Hrbacek says. "Everything we worked for was taken away from us."

More than a dozen kids jumped off the balcony of this house to evade police.
Todd Spivak
More than a dozen kids jumped off the balcony of this house to evade police.
Jessica Mojtahedi
Todd Spivak
Jessica Mojtahedi

Michael Tarantino, a Dulles senior, sued the school district after learning that he would not be allowed to sing in a weekend-long choral recital for which he had spent all year rehearsing. Tarantino claims he did not drink at the party and even has a well-known reputation at the school for abstaining from alcohol. On the night of the party, he sat in his car preparing to leave when an officer snatched his keys, ordered him back into the house and issued him an MIP citation.

Court hearings for Tarantino were held over a period of three days, May 11 to May 13, and included testimony from Dulles Principal Lance Hindt and school district staff attorney Bernadette Gonzalez. In the end, the district court judge denied Tarantino's request for an injunction against the school district. Removing a child from an extracurricular activity, the judge ruled, does not rise to the level of a constitutional right violation.

"Unfair is not necessarily illegal" is how Gonzalez explains the ruling.

Many students remain fearful of additional retaliation from the school. They say that school administrators already threatened to bar them from attending prom and walking in graduation. School officials deny such claims as "rumors and hearsay."

Reached at home, Tarantino's mother refused to let her son comment on the matter.

"It's been such a stressful ordeal," she says. "The less said now, the better."

Static blares and bounces around the room of Gary Franks's first-floor law office. Franks, who represents several of the teens busted at last month's house party, stares at a black-screened monitor and listens intently.

Through a public information request, Franks obtained copies of the video and audio tapes from the night of the police raid. They are mostly useless. But he suffers through them, picking up snippets of conversation amid vast expanses of white noise.

He forwards ahead to a scene in which an officer can be heard ordering the teenagers to go home.

"I don't want anybody driving if they've been drinking," the cop says.

Franks slaps the palm of his hand on his desk. "If!" he exclaims. "If they've been drinking!"

Franks wants to know why the teens were ticketed when the officers didn't even know if they were drinking alcohol. And why, Franks asks, were teens such as Tarantino busted for possessing alcohol and then handed back their car keys and told to drive home?

Sugar Land Police Chief Lisa Womack has publicly defended her officers several times. She says that the large quantities of alcohol found in the house, and the minors' proximity to it, is sufficient evidence to issue the MIP citations.

"It's not okay for a minor to be at a party when alcohol is present, even if they're not drinking," Womack says. "Essentially, if there's enough to go around, it doesn't matter whether or not they had alcohol on their breath."

The defense attorneys dispute this reading of the law, contending that a mere presence of alcohol is not enough. They will build their cases around the meaning of "possession," which is defined in the Texas penal code as having "actual care, custody, control, or management."

"If the police chief doesn't know the law any better than that, then the officers under her must be poorly trained," says Nina Schaefer, an attorney representing one of the students.

Attorneys also condemn the department for the manner in which the officers entered the house. Based on several affidavits provided by eyewitnesses, police were never invited inside and possessed neither search nor arrest warrants. Asked repeatedly about this, the police chief was not particularly forthcoming.

"The question of entry is not something that I'm going to discuss," Womack says, "though I don't believe there was any violation of policy or law."

That's for the courts to decide. But one thing is certain: The school administration still plans to punish the students even if their MIP citations are ultimately dismissed.

Students say this is unfair for many reasons. For one, half of those who were ticketed received no penalty at all from the school since they don't participate in extracurricular activities. Several others evaded punishment since they're about to graduate and their activities ended earlier in the year. That leaves just a select few, such as the singer and the baseball players, who actually served out their suspensions.

And then there's Mojtahedi, the girl who claims she was threatened by police when she reached for her purse. She's 16 and pretty with blond hair and waxy skin. When telling her story, she blinks twice and flashes a bright white smile.

"Look at me," she says. "Do I look like I carry a gun?"

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Houston Concert Tickets