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By Sean Pendergast
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"Party in the seniors' room!"
It wasn't much of a party: just a few of their classmates zoning out to Japanese anime on the Cartoon Network. But it beat sitting in their own room, so they decided to flop down and channel-surf.
Among the top students at Houston's elite DeBakey High School, Franco and his pals had just wrapped up a statewide academic competition in health occupations.
For some, it was the first time away from home without their parents. In the morning, they would find out who was going to Disneyland. Qualifying students earned a spot in the Health Occupations Students of America's national competition in Anaheim, California.
They were too excited to sleep.
More than a week after the April 5-8 competition, seniors learned they'd been banned from participating in school-sponsored trips or competitions, and could no longer be exempted from taking finals. And juniors could never again participate in overnight trips or hold school elective offices.
Appeals were futile. They had broken school regulations by being out after curfew -- even if it was just to watch cartoons.
Alex Nguyen was in her friends' hotel room at 3 a.m. when a DeBakey teacher pounded on the door and called her name. Nguyen hid beneath the covers until the teacher went away.
Panicked, the 16-year-old junior leaped from the bed and bounded down the hallway to turn herself in. The teacher wanted to know if anyone else had broken the midnight curfew by leaving their hotel rooms. Nguyen earlier had stopped by the seniors' room and stayed for maybe five minutes. She named names.
Later that morning word spread that everyone who had visited the seniors' room was in trouble. Students scrambled to apologize to their teachers. During the three-hour bus ride back to Houston, a group of students penned a two-page letter of apology to DeBakey Principal Dr. Charlesetta Deason signed by the 18 who were busted.
The kids were worried about being punished. But they weren't that worried. It's not as if they were caught drinking, smoking or having sex. There was no brawling or vandalism. No leaving the hotel or disturbing the other guests. Just cartoons and conversation.
The following Monday, Franco was in U.S. history class when he was paged on the classroom intercom to DeBakey Assistant Principal Agnes Bell's office. Bell interrogated him, called his mother and threatened to give him a "P" for student conduct. A "P," which stands for "poor," would automatically boot Franco from the National Honor Society and prevent him from taking advanced placement courses during his senior year.
Anish Pillai, a 17-year-old senior, says that Bell and Deason threatened to ban him and the other seniors from attending prom and walking in graduation. "The school has some pretty far-fetched ideas about what happened that night," Pillai observes.
Deason kept the kids on pins and needles for a week before handing down official punishments in the form of a letter addressed to their parents. The six seniors would not be allowed to participate in a popular school-sponsored sleepover event, and those who scored well enough to be exempted from taking final exams would forfeit their exemptions.
The 12 juniors, meanwhile, were banned from participating in Health Occupations Students of America competitions and other school-sponsored field trips, and could not hold elective office. Their punishments would extend to the rest of their high school careers.
As a result, Franco and his five-member team can't go to Disneyland to compete in the national competition in June. A six-member DeBakey team can't go to the National Association of Rocketry competition in Virginia later this month. And several students were forced to ditch their plans to run for student council and other school offices.
Parents have sent letters to Deason complaining that the punishments were unequal and heavy-handed.
"There's no room for redemption," says Bob Franco, Andrew's father.
Seniors admit they got off easier than the juniors. "They can't do as much to us because we're graduating," Pillai says.
Since DeBakey has no sports teams, the main extracurricular activities for students are clubs and academic competitions. Many juniors worry that their activities are being limited to the extent that their college applications will suffer.
"HOSA is basically our school sport," says Nguyen. "Our entire senior year is ruined."
Earlier this year the Houston Press featured DeBakey as the area's premier school ("These Kids Go to the Best Public High School in Houston," March 2). At the time, Deason claimed her administration rarely dealt with disciplinary problems. The worst offenses, she said, included a hanging shirttail or an unshaven face.
Since March, Deason's administration has been put to the test. Just before spring break, a junior and a sophomore were allegedly caught having sexual intercourse in a third-floor bathroom and were promptly expelled, according to several DeBakey students. Houston Independent School District spokesman Terry Abbott declined to comment on the incident. "It wouldn't be appropriate to discuss a student disciplinary issue," he wrote in an e-mail.
Some parents of the students who were punished for breaking curfew question Deason's ability to appropriately handle disciplinary problems. They criticize her for taking a week to announce the punishments and for rescinding several threats after parents lined up to protest.
Despite the controversies, the 16-year DeBakey principal has her supporters.
"Those kids know the standard of conduct expected of them," says John Clark, DeBakey PTA president for the last three years. "They can't legislate their own punishments."
Clark goes on to compare the curfew violation to the recent troubles at Madison High School, where the principal was reassigned after allegations of sexual lewdness during a school dance. "If they weren't in their rooms and someone got raped or killed, what then?" Clark asks. "It's the Madison High School scenario. The principal would get moved from the school."
But parents who are critical of Deason's decisions contend that the punishment should fit the actual crime -- not a hypothetical one.