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.

Paquin had to expel Pavlos, but she could temper his punishment.

On November 14, Kathy Karnezis arrived at the expulsion hearing armed with dozens of letters from Hightower students, parents and teachers vouching for Pavlos's character.

English teacher Melissa Martinez wrote: "Pavlos Karnezis is a role model for his peers. For me, he has been the epitome of 'the perfect student.' I can only imagine how this ordeal might crush his spirit, as he is so undeserving of such a harsh punishment."

Pavlos averted his eyes from the principal's at the graduation ceremony, as he had done whenever they crossed paths in the school hallways.
Daniel Kramer
Pavlos averted his eyes from the principal's at the graduation ceremony, as he had done whenever they crossed paths in the school hallways.

Computer graphics teacher Clayton Wallace wrote: "Pavlos is a good kid who made a dumb mistake. When I think of all the stupid things I did when I was growing up, I'm grateful I had good people watching over me, guiding me. Pavlos needs us to be those people for him. There is a time for stiff justice, but I believe justice ought to be tempered with mercy in Pavlos' case."

Students, too, rallied around Pavlos, circulating petitions that garnered hundreds of signatures. "Set an example for us...and apply these laws with the humanity and morality you hope to see in us someday," one petition implored.

But, says Kathy Karnezis, Paquin didn't even glance at the stack of letters during the 25-minute hearing.

With the air of a judge -- "Under penal code...I hereby expel..." -- Paquin decreed the stiffest possible penalty. No longer would Pavlos attend his home school. Nor would he be sent to an alternative education program offered by the district. Paquin sentenced him to boot camp at the Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program for 115 days, or the equivalent of the rest of his senior year. The Fort Bend County Juvenile Board operates the military-style program, which accepts expelled students from across the county.

From then on, it seemed that everyone Pavlos encountered wanted to help him -- except for his own principal.

At boot camp, Pavlos joined the other kids on a campus encased by razor wire. A sergeant shaved his hair off. He was ordered to punctuate every sentence with an emphatic "sir" or "ma'am," and always sit with hands flat on his desk, legs at a 45-degree angle.

Talking to some of his new classmates, Pavlos learned firsthand about the disparity of punishments. One boy he met had threatened a student with a seven-inch stiletto knife at his school, and was sentenced to boot camp for a mere 20 days.

Pavlos told his story to a sergeant, who reviewed his transcripts and couldn't understand why he'd been sent there. One teacher even printed off information for several private schools where Pavlos would be better served, since no honors classes are offered at boot camp.

At this point, nearly two weeks had passed since Pavlos had received any instruction in his advanced, college-prep courses.

Kathy Karnezis wanted to pull her son from school altogether. But an administrator told her that Pavlos would be classified a truant and the expulsion would appear on his permanent record.

"I was a basket case," the mom says. "I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't get up in the morning."

She contacted more than a dozen Houston-area private schools. All rejected him either because of the pending felony charge or because they do not accept seniors mid-year.

On November 16, Kathy Karnezis landed an interview with Diana Monn, principal of the Houston Learning Academy in Sugar Land. Monn decided Pavlos deserved a second chance.

The small pricey private school offered no extracurricular activities, only academic courses. And it did not offer advanced-placement courses.

"We did our best to challenge him with the resources that we had," says Monn, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Pavlos to take an advanced calculus course at Houston Community College.

Pavlos excelled at Houston Learning Academy, where he became the only student named to the school's exemplary honor roll. Monn says he became an instant role model to the other students and was a leading contender for valedictorian.

"Any principal would love to have a kid like Pavlos," she says.

Patricia Paquin has just completed her third year as principal of Hightower, a $35 million campus with state-of-the-art sports facilities that rival those of some colleges. The school opened in 1998 with fewer than 600 students and 50 teachers and has ballooned to more than 2,600 students and 140 teachers.

Hightower is a regular-zoned campus, but it also houses a magnet program that accepts qualified applicants from throughout Fort Bend ISD, for study of computers, engineering, media or medical science. It is considered the most innovative of the district's seven public high schools, and it's one of only two high schools in Fort Bend ISD that offers block scheduling modeled after colleges. Three-fourths of the student body is African-American or Hispanic.

Debbie Dunlap, the school's first and only other principal, was hailed for assembling a staff that some say included the best high school teachers in the Houston area. Hightower quickly gained a reputation for academic excellence and became a destination school for veteran teachers.

"My management style was to be supportive," says Dunlap, who left in 2003 to join a teacher-certification company. "I just let the teachers do their jobs."

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