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High school senior Pavlos Karnezis was filing into his first-period physics class one morning last November when a friend approached with a pressing physics problem of his own: how to keep his pants up.
Patricia Paquin, principal at Hightower High School in Missouri City, is a stickler about dress-code policies. Flip-flops, airbrushed shirts, pants set below the waistline: All are big no-nos and cause for suspension.
Figuring he could cut string from the morning's lab project for a makeshift belt, the saggy-bottomed boy asked to borrow Pavlos's nifty little buck knife.
Pavlos had received the knife as a gift while visiting family in Greece several weeks earlier. He used it to break down boxes at his school-sponsored internship at Texas Instruments, rather than trouble his supervisors for razor blades. He wanted to impress them.
The knife was a single-edged switchblade with a carved wooden handle, small enough to be palmed and easily concealed. But, then, Pavlos never had reason to hide it.
Go ahead and grab it from my backpack, he volunteered.
A minute or so passed, and Tom Miskelly, the teacher, wondered aloud if anyone had scissors to lend.
It was then that Pavlos's pal made the sort of asinine move uniquely reserved for teenagers.
He clicked the button on the side of the knife, popping out a 2.9-inch blade, and extended it to the teacher in an open palm.
Miskelly snatched away the knife, walked it to the front of the room and finished the class, then escorted the boys to Paquin's office.
By all accounts, Pavlos was a model student-athlete. He took all advanced-placement classes, earning As and Bs, and had enough credits to graduate with honors at the end of his junior year. He was goalkeeper and co-captain for the varsity soccer team and kicker for the varsity football team. Outside school, he volunteered at a hospital, a senior home and his church, tutored younger students and ran the cash register at one of his family's three Houston-area barbecue restaurants.
"He's not street-smart," says his Greek-born father, Thomas. "His whole life is school and sports and work."
But his college plans were upended and his family was about to go through hell -- all for a souvenir-shop knife.
On November 4, 2005, Pavlos's friends and their families were on the school football field celebrating Senior Night. Pavlos, meanwhile, was timidly chatting up inmates charged with drug dealing and attempted murder in Fort Bend County Jail.
At 8:30 a.m. that Friday, Pavlos's knife had been confiscated. By 2:30 p.m., he was in the back of a squad car. At some point in between, while being interrogated by police and school administrators, he became dizzy, fell out of a chair and lay sobbing on the carpeted floor of the principal's office.
"I tried to explain that I didn't threaten anybody, that I would never threaten anybody, but it didn't matter," says Pavlos, a tall, sturdy 17-year-old with inky hair combed forward to his brow.
Miskelly, the physics teacher, confirmed this assertion in a written statement to the principal: "The students had no intention of using the knife other than the intended use of cutting the string."
In years past, students' intentions didn't mean squat. Take, for instance, the Katy eighth-grader suspended for having a Korean pencil sharpener with a two-inch folding blade, or the Woodlands seventh-grader expelled and sentenced to 45 days of juvenile detention for accidentally leaving his Boy Scout knife in his jacket pocket.
Education advocates estimate such cases represent 10 percent of the kids who are plucked from their home schools and dropped in alternative education programs. That amounts to more than 10,000 students across Texas each year.
"Because of the fear of another Columbine, these districts have enacted draconian punishments that serve to alienate innocent children," says Katy-based Fred Hink, co-director of Texas Zero Tolerance, a statewide advocacy group composed mainly of parents whose own kids were punished severely for trivial offenses.
House Bill 603, passed last spring with unanimous, bipartisan support, was supposed to put an end to such nonsense. Suddenly, principals' hands were freed. No longer could they blame the state for throwing the book at students.
When handing down suspensions and expulsions, principals may now consider the following factors: "self-defense; intent or lack of intent at the time the student engaged in the conduct; a student's disciplinary history; a disability that substantially impairs the student's capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the student's conduct."
The legislation amended chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code, the law governing what happens to students charged with serious offenses. It was supposed to inject common sense into disciplinary decisions.
But school districts across the state have chosen to ignore the new law, which can be interpreted more as recommendation than mandate, since they face no consequences for breaking it.
Hink's group pushed for two main amendments to the existing law: immediate parental contact in cases of major disciplinary infractions, and the development of an outside board to oversee and review disciplinary cases.