Cut Short

A model student-athlete unthinkingly brings a knife to school and ends up in jail, then expelled. Why one-size-fits-all discipline fails kids.

Both provisions were eliminated from the final, defanged version signed by the governor.

"Some principals saw it as an affront to their judgment," says Representative Rob Eissler, a Republican from The Woodlands, who readily admits the bill he co-wrote became "muddled" and "watered down." Eissler plans to propose yet another amendment to strengthen the law's language in the next legislative session.

Many schools even issue class C misdemeanor citations -- which are like speeding tickets and carry a fine of up to $500, plus court costs -- for violating the Student Code of Conduct. In one instance, a student was ticketed for chewing gum in class, according to a report on student-discipline alternatives published in March by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Patricia Paquin has incited much criticism from students, parents and teachers during her three-year tenure as principal of Hightower High School in Missouri City.
Daniel Kramer
Patricia Paquin has incited much criticism from students, parents and teachers during her three-year tenure as principal of Hightower High School in Missouri City.
A talented goalkeeper, Pavlos was sidelined for most of the season.
Daniel Kramer
A talented goalkeeper, Pavlos was sidelined for most of the season.

The Dispute Resolution Center of Harris County has offered the Houston, Cypress-Fairbanks and Klein independent school districts free mediation programs to avoid charging kids with criminal offenses, though none have accepted, according to attorney Elaine Roberts, who sits on the center's board.

Instead, such kids continue to clog the juvenile court system.

"Even when the court has dismissed the charges, the school will not," Roberts says. "It's absolutely appalling."

The new law was designed to protect students such as Pavlos, who had a clean disciplinary record and did not intend to use the knife as a weapon.

It was all a big misunderstanding, he figured. When the principal had all the facts, everything would be okay.

Then he was handcuffed.

Kathy Karnezis wasn't notified of her son's arrest until he was already on his way to jail.

"Why wasn't I called sooner?" she asked Hightower Assistant Principal Laura Underwood.

"I didn't have to call you at all," Underwood replied, according to the mom.

(A principal can take as long as three days to notify a parent about an expellable offense, according to Fort Bend ISD's Student Code of Conduct.)

Pavlos was fingerprinted, photographed and dumped in a crowded holding cell with a toilet in the middle of the room, where he spent the next 25 hours. He wore a brave face as fellow inmates boasted about how they ended up there.

In school documents, he is aptly referred to as Pavlos K. -- an inadvertent nod to the fictional character Franz K. in Kafka's novel The Trial, about a man arrested for reasons he cannot comprehend. Pavlos described his own Kafka-esque experience in a 2,500-word essay that he later abbreviated for college applications:

"When an officer appeared for the hourly roll call, I told him the phone was damaged and that I hadn't eaten at all. He jeered at me, 'I'm sorry. Dinner was at six.' I retreated to my bunk like a dejected animal. I felt helpless. A priest came around and handed me a Bible.

"I prayed that this was all a nightmare and tried to get some sleep. I placed my thin mat on the metal bunk and covered my legs with a worn sheet. I used the bath towel as a pillow and tucked my arms into my shirt for warmth. But I could not lay rest the echoes of self-doubt that ravaged my mind.

" 'What is my family thinking? Am I a failure in everyone's eyes? Will I ever return to Hightower? What college will accept me now?' "

Pavlos managed to keep from crying until the next evening, when he collapsed into the arms of his mother. She paid $3,000 in cash to bail him out. He faced a third-degree-felony charge for having a switchblade on a school campus.

In a letter dated November 8, Underwood informed Pavlos's parents that the school had charged him with possession of a prohibited weapon. Expulsion was mandatory, according to state law.

Paquin immediately sentenced Pavlos to the maximum three days out-of-school suspension, then in-school suspension until his formal expulsion hearing, which was set for the following week.

Pavlos's friend, meanwhile, got off easier. He was neither jailed nor expelled, but was suspended for a week.

It was Pavlos's first time being sentenced to ISS, where the idea is to pull misbehaving kids from their regular classes and put them in a more rigid environment. Pavlos describes it as an unsupervised free-for-all.

"It was loud, with everybody going crazy," he says. "It was impossible to get any work done."

Kathy Karnezis met privately with Paquin on the Wednesday following Pavlos's release from jail. She entered the principal's office crying, pleading. "I said, 'Ms. Paquin, Pavlos is a good kid. He made a dumb mistake. He's naive. Put yourself in my shoes. What can I do to help him?' "

But Paquin was intractable. Pavlos will be expelled, she said.

Then what's the point of having a hearing? the mom asked.

To determine the length of the sentence, Paquin responded.

Kathy Karnezis says Paquin promised to reinstate Pavlos at Hightower if the criminal charges against him were dropped. This was the first rational thing she had heard in days.

She held out hope that the principal would be reasonable. After all, this marked the first year that the district had pledged in its Student Code of Conduct to consider a student's intent and disciplinary history, as dictated by the new state law.

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