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.

This letter was never sent, according to Kathy Karnezis.

On November 28, Kathy Karnezis called Sandra Scott-Bonner, director of administrative services at Fort Bend ISD, who told her the deadline for filing an appeal had passed. The mom explained that she never received any information regarding her right to appeal. "I don't know you, so I have no reason to believe you are telling the truth," Scott-Bonner replied, according to the mom. This made her livid.

The next day a police officer from the school hand-delivered to Kathy Karnezis the certified letter.

Daniel Kramer
Kathy Karnezis spent four months battling the Fort Bend Independent School District after her son, Pavlos, was expelled and sentenced to spend the rest of his senior year in boot camp.
Daniel Kramer
Kathy Karnezis spent four months battling the Fort Bend Independent School District after her son, Pavlos, was expelled and sentenced to spend the rest of his senior year in boot camp.

The mom remained conflicted about appealing the punishment. She consulted several attorneys who specialize in school law. They warned that the process is long and almost always a rubber stamp for the action already taken.

But what did she have to lose? First, though, she needed to deal with the felony charge against her son. So she hired Sam Dick, who was elected to one term as Fort Bend County district attorney in the late '80s. These days, Dick prefers a lower profile and specializes in juvenile law.

Dick sent a one-page letter to the D.A.'s office that laid out his defense of Pavlos. "Pavlos did not know the knife was illegal," Dick wrote. "He is now charged with a felony that obviously affects the rest of his life."

Two weeks later, on December 9, the criminal charges against Pavlos were dismissed.

If only dealing with the school district were as simple.

Dick initially declined to represent Pavlos in his appeal against Fort Bend ISD, arguing that school law is very different from juvenile law. In school law, he says, students are not always entitled to due process and standards for demonstrating the burden of proof are much lower.

Dick changed his mind after getting to know Pavlos and his parents. He was convinced that Pavlos was a good kid who had made a mistake. The principal shouldn't be able to get away with punishing him so severely, he figured.

"There's a fine line between discipline and over-discipline," Dick says. "We don't want [principals] to be dictators, and that was the problem here."

Since the criminal charges were dropped, Kathy Karnezis had hoped that Paquin would keep her promise and reinstate Pavlos at Hightower. But at the first appeal hearing, on December 14, it became clear that the school district would continue to play hardball.

The meeting was held at the district's administrative office. A panel of three assistant principals from other schools in the district were called upon to decide Pavlos's fate.

Dick calls the first step in the appeals process unfair, since assistant principals are unlikely to slap down the decision of a fellow administrator. He says there should be at least one independent judge on the panel.

Dick informed the panel that the felony charge had been dropped.

Scott-Bonner, who served as the hearing's presiding officer, made clear to the panel members that this should not affect their decision. "...I didn't want the panel or the parents to think that just because the felony charges are dropped that we cannot continue on with our student code of conduct violation, because we can. There are two separate, if you will, authorities," Scott-Bonner explains, according to a transcript of the expulsion hearing.

The panel upheld the expulsion but modified the sentence. Instead of boot camp, Pavlos could instead attend an alternative education program within the district, where he'd receive coursework from Hightower.

Pavlos's fight against the school district wasn't over. The process allowed for one final option: He could appeal again, this time to the district's board of trustees.

At the very minimum, Dick wanted to make sure the board was aware of the new law enabling principals to consider disciplinary history and intent.

The hearing was set for after Christmas break, then postponed until the end of February.

At that point, Pavlos had been away from Hightower for four months. He was bored with the easy-track classes at Houston Learning Academy. He missed sports; he missed his friends. He was depressed.

The ordeal also took a toll on his mom, who lost 20 pounds during the period.

"I could not talk any sense into that principal," she says. "She took it to the extreme."

On February 27, Pavlos appealed his case before the board. Each side had 15 minutes to present its argument. The five-member board deliberated in a closed session for seven minutes, then returned with a unanimous ruling:

Remove the expulsion from Pavlos's record and let him return to Hightower.

It marked the first time in at least five years that the Fort Bend ISD's board of trustees had overturned a principal's decision to expel a student.

"The board," Kathy Karnezis observed, "did not look very happy with the principal."

On March 6, when Pavlos returned to Hightower, dumbfounded classmates swarmed to hug and welcome him back.

"Don't shank me!" shouted friend and class clown Ronnie Sherwood, and everyone guffawed at the absurd notion that Pavlos would attack someone with a knife.

In one sense, the timing of his expulsion was good. He was booted just after homecoming and returned just before prom.

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