By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
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It was a normal day for Merrilee Littlewood, starting with 6 a.m. Bible study, then school and volunteer work at a home for seniors. Later that Thursday evening, after watching a talent show at Dulles High School, a friend called and invited her to a house party on Sugar Creek. Not knowing what was in store, she decided to drop by.
It was just a few weeks before graduation, and the place was jammed with teenagers. Littlewood waded through the crowd and immediately went upstairs to check out the giant living room loaded with big-screen TVs and other high-end electronics. She was there for maybe ten minutes when a cop burst in through a second-story back door, knocked over a table and sprinted downstairs to let in five other officers.
Littlewood says she had no clue there were no parents at the party. Nor did she see the cases of Dos Equis and Corona stacked in corners of rooms throughout the house. But even as the officers barked at her to sit down and shut up, she wasn't all that worried. She knew she hadn't broken any laws. As a devout Mormon, she abstains from drinking. And there's more incentive to stay sober: Littlewood suffers from Crohn's disease. Alcohol mixed with the potent pills she takes daily could permanently damage her liver. So she never drinks. Not even a sip.
But all that hardly mattered to the officers, who issued citations for minor in possession of alcohol to everyone they could get their mitts on. As reported in the Houston Press("Home Alone," June 2), about half of the teens at the April 14 party escaped by either hiding in the house or jumping off the balcony and scattering into the neighborhood. The remaining 37 were busted. Many pleaded with the officers to let them take breath analyzer tests to prove their innocence. But they were out of luck. Everyone, the officers announced, would be served with class C misdemeanor tickets.
For Littlewood and a handful of others, the punishments didn't end there. Angry parents threatened to sue the Sugar Land Police Department for what they considered an illegal raid conducted by overzealous cops who forced their way into the house with neither search nor arrest warrants. Many of the kids appealed the tickets. But neither of these factors, nor the fact that the incident occurred miles away from school property, deterred Dulles Principal Lance Hindt and the school district's area superintendent from taking action.
About midway through the next week, Littlewood, a National Honor Society student with a 3.7 grade point average who had never been in any trouble at school, was called to the principal's office. She signed a statement attesting that she was at the party but did not drink. She says that an assistant principal assured her that she would not be disciplined. The school was following an "honor code," he told her. If she says she didn't drink, she wouldn't be punished.
Less than a week later, Littlewood was suspended from an elite leadership program for the rest of her senior year. In other cases, students were booted from the baseball team just as the playoffs began and were kept from participating in a weekend-long choral recital for which they had spent the entire year rehearsing.
Now flash forward to October 6. Some six months after the raid, all charges were dismissed against Littlewood and 16 other teens who fought their tickets. Littlewood has since gone on to college. Fortunately, the incident did not affect the partial academic scholarship she received from Texas A&M University, where she is now enrolled and lives off-campus in a condominium that she shares with a friend from Dulles. Though she's many miles away, thoughts of her alma mater linger.
Last week Littlewood filed a federal lawsuit against Fort Bend Independent School District and its superintendent, Betty Baitland. In the suit, Littlewood claims the school's actions violated her constitutional right to due process. Her attorney predicts that other teens ticketed at the house party will follow Littlewood's lead by suing the school district for doling out suspensions before the kids had their day in court.
"Without proof, I got in trouble and punished," Littlewood says. "I was never given the right to prove myself innocent. The schools shouldn't have so much power over us."
Community service work is a common form of punishment for people who commit minor criminal offenses. But Littlewood was already devoted to volunteerism. Through an extracurricular program at her high school, she donated her time at a community hospital, a home for seniors and an elementary school, where she mentored students.
To reprimand Littlewood for attending an underage drinking party, school officials exacted a peculiar punishment: They barred her from performing community service work.
The school issued 20-day suspensions from extracurricular activities to every student ticketed by police. Littlewood and a handful of others cried foul, since most of those who were ticketed either didn't participate in extracurricular activities or were about to graduate and their activities had ended earlier in the year. The actions taken by the school were arbitrary and capricious, Littlewood's lawsuit states.
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