By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
By Sean Pendergast
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
The vast majority of teachers assembled by Dunlap have left Hightower since Paquin took over the reins. It is estimated that between 35 and 55 teachers have fled during each year of Paquin's tenure. The entire science department has been wiped out twice since she became principal, according to several Hightower teachers.
Anyone in a power position overseeing a school that expanded so dramatically is expected to become a magnet for complaints. Many say Paquin was better suited to her former, less visible position of dean of instruction.
Every year, rumors circulate that Paquin won't be back.
"Many petitions have been formed as a catalyst for her removal," reads the Wikipedia entry about Hightower High School. The online encyclopedia, written and edited by unnamed volunteers -- some of whom may well be disgruntled former Hightower employees -- includes a section devoted to controversies surrounding Paquin.
Several teachers say getting away from Paquin was a primary reason they left the school. Many echo the same complaints, claiming Paquin lacks people skills and generally does not support teachers. Some are diplomatic, while others are disarmingly blunt.
Ermine Minard has taught for 28 years, 18 of which were spent in Fort Bend ISD. When Hightower first opened, Minard was recruited to teach algebra courses and to coordinate the school's University Interscholastic League activities. Minard transferred to Dulles High School at the end of Paquin's first year as principal; she calls herself "among the first wave of escapees."
"Patricia Paquin is an extremely rude, overbearing, micromanaging monster," Minard opines. "She ruined the school."
Paquin says she is not aware of any teachers who left because of her. "Teachers leave, teachers leave for various reasons," she says. "I hate to see them go."
English teacher Beatriz Addison left Hightower last year and now works at Morton Ranch High School in Katy ISD. She says Paquin was frequently abusive to teachers, sometimes even in front of students. There were many days when she would sit in her classroom and cry.
Paquin denies snapping at teachers in the company of students. "I am not verbally or emotionally abusive," she says, "and I am sorry that people feel that way."
Addison recalls a faculty meeting in which Paquin berated the entire staff: "She said to all of us, 'If you're not happy here, get out, the doors are open. You can all be replaced.' "
Paquin denies saying this, though it was confirmed by more than a half-dozen teachers who attended the meeting. "If people said that, then people said that," Paquin says. "That is not something I said in front of a group of people."
Calculus teacher Lauri Crestani left Hightower two years ago, after colleagues named her teacher of the year, and transferred to Morton Ranch. She says Paquin frequently turned down teacher requests for new advanced-placement courses and cut back on existing ones.
"The philosophy of any school should be to grow, to continually raise the bar," Crestani says. "That was not encouraged."
In April, Paquin led a meeting with more than 100 parents in the school auditorium. Parents say they requested the meeting, but it was hijacked by Paquin, who refused to let them speak. Paquin insisted that parents submit questions in writing and promised to answer them via e-mail. The school year ended in May, and Paquin admits she still has not replied to many of the parents' questions.
Much of Paquin's discussion centered on disciplinary issues. She spoke at length about the importance of enforcing dress-code policies and the hazards of wearing flip-flops.
Paquin reported that she handed down more than 1,800 suspensions this past school year. This would appear to indicate the work of a strict disciplinarian. But many teachers and parents say student behavior at Hightower is getting only worse, with fights breaking out on a regular basis.
"The morale of our school is bad," says 17-year-old Julia Alaniz, who graduated from Hightower this year.
There needs to be an overhaul of the administration, says Doris Hamilton, a veteran chemistry teacher who spent five years at Hightower before transferring in 2003 to Seven Lakes in Katy ISD.
"There was a job fair recently," Hamilton says. "Nobody wants to go to Hightower. The word is out about her."
Some suggest the way Paquin handled the knife incident involving Pavlos is indicative of her overall disciplinary approach.
"Patricia Paquin doesn't view students as individuals," says parent Vicki Burns, who pulled her twins from Hightower this year because of disputes with the principal. "She has an across-the-board mentality."
Paquin says district policy prohibits her from discussing the disciplinary action taken against Pavlos.
"We follow the district policy and the state penal code policy, and that's what we follow when we deal with every discipline issue on our campus," she says.
Did Paquin know that she was supposed to consider such factors as a student's disciplinary history and intent, according to the district's revised Student Code of Conduct?
"We follow district policy in everything that we do," she repeats.
Well, not quite. District policy dictates that after expelling a student, a principal must provide the student's parents with a letter notifying them of the expulsion and the option to appeal it.
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.
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.
But Pavlos missed the end of the football season and most of the soccer matches, nixing his goal of making the all-district team. He wasn't photographed with his teammates, and he's absent from the wide-angle shot of the entire senior class in the yearbook.
"I missed out on a lot," he says. "I didn't get to learn as much as I wanted. And I lost a lot of high school memories."
The ordeal also singed a hole in his parents' pocketbook. They spent $6,000 for the attorney and $2,700 for private school, and they're still waiting to get back the $3,000 they posted for bail.
It is clear that many families do not have the time and money required to win justice from a school district.
"There are good kids that get punished and they're not as lucky as Pavlos," Kathy Karnezis says. "It's a shame that kids are wasted like that."
Kathy Karnezis remains furious with Paquin. At the parent meeting in April, the mom says she raised her hand for 30 minutes but was never recognized to ask her question. She wants an apology. It's a good thing she's not holding her breath.
"I don't have a reason" to apologize, Paquin says. "I've done what I felt we needed to do."
Pavlos, meanwhile, tries not to dwell on the events of the last several months. He has too much to look forward to.
The school averaged his grades from the beginning of the year at Hightower with those earned at private school and community college. He graduated in the top 15 percent of his class.
In late April he received an acceptance letter to Case Western Reserve University.
And on May 27 he joined the rest of his class at the graduation ceremony held in the Toyota Center.
In cap and gown, Pavlos strode across the dais toward Paquin.
Pavlos averted his eyes from the principal's, as he had done whenever they crossed paths in the school hallways.
Paquin treated him like any other student. She handed Pavlos his diploma and shook his hand. She followed procedure.
Editor's note: In the interests of full disclosure, we want to note that aHouston Press editorial staff member -- not the author of this article -- has children who have attended Hightower High School.