Book 'Em

The way 17-year-old Adriana Garza remembers it, her first visit to jail was one big, ugly surprise. It all began on the morning of September 27, as her schoolmates at Sam Houston Senior High were making their usual migration from class to class. Garza and her friend Veronica DeLeon were passing a clump of younger girls when one of them lunged forward and slugged Veronica. "She hit her back. A crowd started gathering, then someone pushed me to the floor," Garza recalls. "When I tried to pick up my books, someone grabbed my hair .... I couldn't fight back, everything happened so fast."

Not too fast, though, for two HISD police officers to wade into the dust-up, handcuff six girls, including Garza, and whisk them to Sam Houston's "security room" for discipline cases. Then, Garza says, without so much as taking a statement, the school officers summoned the Houston Police Department to take the three girls who were over 17, and therefore adults in the eyes of the law, to the city jail.

Garza says she waited behind bars for about eight hours before her parents managed to bail her out. Now, in addition to coming up with $150 bond, she says, her working-class family is having to pay a lawyer to represent her at her March court date. The charges: public fighting and disrupting school activities, both Class C misdemeanors. Garza professes to be bewildered by the entire episode. Not only does she claim to be innocent, but she says neither she nor her Sam Houston friends were previously aware that they could be locked up for fighting. "The HISD security guards said they work with HPD now, and they're going to take [all students caught fighting] who are 17 and older to jail," Garza says. "Last year, there was a lot of fights, but nobody ever went to jail."

If incarcerating students for punching and hair pulling sounds a little extreme, however, Sam Houston principal Ben Azios says there's more to it than Garza lets on. A bulky, raspy-voiced man with a disarmingly intense gaze, Azios has been at Sam Houston now for a year and a half. Student arrest, he says, is a long-standing, HISD-authorized disciplinary tool, and he says it's been used to curb fighting at Sam Houston for years. If jail is what it takes to keep some students from disrupting their classmates' studies, Azios says, jail is what he uses. Seventeen-year-olds who are caught fighting are dealt a suspension, then handed over to the HPD. And, Azios says, his students, including Adriana Garza, all know the policy perfectly well.

Shirley Johnson, who is the principal of Westbury Senior High on the southwest side and once held the same position at Sam Houston, also believes students at the north-side school know what's in store when they fight. Although there are no figures for how often it happens, school police have been able to ticket and arrest disruptive students since 1989. The HISD principals Johnson knows, she says, use the arrest option routinely.

"Principals may not like to talk about it, but they're doing it," Johnson says. "Some schools, particularly in the suburbs, may like to say everything's rosy, but they [have students arrested], too. I know I do." This school year, Johnson has sent two students who are over 17 to jail for fighting. And while she doesn't like putting them behind bars, she says her responsibility is to the majority of Westbury's 2,500 students, who are there to learn.

But although Johnson has used jail as a disciplinary tool for more than a decade, she also says that she's presided over far more arrests in the past five years than previously. She thinks that is true for her colleagues, too. In part, that reflects HISD's increasingly stern attitude toward violence, backed by this year's toughened disciplinary code and last May's revised state education code. Both reflect a principle called "zero tolerance" and boost administrators' abilities to get disruptive students away from their peaceful peers. And, Johnson says, today there are simply more students fighting, and more gangs to find things to fight about. Azios, she speculates, simply may be cracking down more visibly after the year and a half he's had to size up his school's problems.

Still, Adriana Garza was not the only one surprised by Sam Houston's arrest strategy. Bobbie Smith, who heads the school's Parent-Teacher Association, admits she'd never heard of it. And Azios himself gets noticeably itchy discussing specifics: he won't, for example, say precisely how HISD decided Garza was guilty, and he also maintains he has no idea exactly how many students he's had jailed for fighting, even though he personally authorizes all arrests at the school. When pressed, however, the principal allowed that the number has been more than a dozen in the current school year.  

When they first cooled their heels in the malodorous dayroom of the city jail, Garza says, she and her two schoolmates were nearly alone. As the morning wore on, though, the place began filling up, and to Garza's surprise, the public drinkers, traffic scofflaws and shoplifters who shared the room were very sociable. Mostly, they were curious about the girls' predicament. When they were in high school, the women said, no one ever locked them up for fighting.

But they never attended today's Sam Houston Senior High. The school, which sits on Irvington on the city's north side, has nearly 3,000 students and serious problems with absenteeism, dropouts and gang fighting. Among the chronic fighters are a healthy number of girls, says PTA leader Smith. The turmoil has been aggravated by a quick turnover in leadership, with Azios being the third principal in as many years. But although Sam Houston, like other HISD schools, has used surveillance cameras and guards since 1989, it's Azios, Smith says, who made a real difference. "He is pulled thin," she says. "But Azios is more visible in the school. [Administrators] mingle now with the students; prior to this I don't think they did that. For the amount of kids we have, the violence isn't what you'd think."

As far as Adriana and her father are concerned, though, Azios' zeal to squelch fighting is out of control. Adriana, Oscar Garza wrote in a two-page letter to Azios appealing his daughter's suspension, was never questioned about her role in the fracas. Azios didn't tell Adriana's parents she was in jail; a friend of hers did. In any case, slapping a teenager in jail for a fight without weapons or injuries, Oscar Garza argued, was a punishment that far exceeded the seriousness of the crime. Finally, when Garza went personally to speak to Azios, the principal refused to give him details about what happened.

"He's Hispanic," says Garza, a Mexican immigrant. "You'd suppose he'd want to help, but instead he takes advantage of the situation to humiliate people."

Azios, though, makes no apologies for his arrest policy or how he administers it. "We deal within HISD guidelines," he says. "If there's a fight, we suspend people with due process. That's basic E. [Arrests] are one of the tools we have here to deal with the discipline process." Actually, the school's policy stops short of what's legally permissible: students younger than 17 years can also be hauled downtown and placed in the juvenile probation system.

But how does a principal decide who's the wrongdoer in a fight that no adult -- not even HISD police -- actually saw? Azios says it's simply a judgment call. That means assessing the fight's seriousness and listening to the HISD cops' description of what they did see. Also part of the decision, Azios says, is a review of the suspect's record. And despite her claims to the contrary, he says, Adriana Garza has a history of disciplinary problems. Another Sam Houston student, who asked not to be named, backs Azios up, saying that, at least last year, Garza and her friends were associated with a gang. Garza says that's not true.

Whatever the case, Azios contends a spell in jail and a court date make a nice, resonant statement for a girl like Adriana. "You send a message home," he says, "that this is a serious offense, that the parents need to get involved with the child. Maybe work to change some of her behavior."

There seems, in fact, to be only one hitch in Ben Azios' enthusiasm for the fight-and-be-busted rule. He's not so big on public discussion of it. On one hand, Azios likes to call the rule a potent deterrent. On the other, though, he's reluctant to say how many Sam Houston kids get arrested, insisting that there's absolutely nothing unusual about his use of the policy compared to previous years, or even to other schools.

Yet Adriana Garza says the rule was news to her, and claims that Azios himself told her he started using it this year, along with a new, zero-tolerance policy on violence. Grudgingly, Garza also acknowledges that it's apparently worked. Since word got out of her arrest in the first month of school, Garza says, the number of once-constant fights on the Sam Houston campus have noticeably abated. Some numbers also seem to speak in Azios' favor: during his first year as principal, there were six expulsions compared to the previous year's 30.

So why his reluctance to discuss his arrest policy in detail? Maybe Azios, on some level, shares the distaste the jailings evoke even among his supporters. PTA leader Bobbie Smith, for one, is a tough-love sort who's been pushing for Sam Houston to start a student boot camp. But she still wonders uneasily if fistfights really merit off-campus detainment. After all, despite its share of belligerents, Sam Houston's students see few fights that involve weapons or serious injury. "If jail would shock [errant students] back to reality, that's a good thing," Smith says. "But I don't know about fighting. I think fighting could be handled on campus."  

Catapulting 17-year-olds into the court system also usurps the school's chance to teach and practice real conflict resolution, say, with mediation classes. That seems to have been the case with Veronica DeLeon, the girl who got locked up with Adriana Garza last September. After the fight and her evening in jail, DeLeon's mother decided to transfer her to a Catholic school. But on the day the two were at Sam Houston filling out documents for her transfer, DeLeon spied the girls who'd punched her that day in the hall. She'd known what that fight was about, she says: her rivals envied her boyfriends and just disliked her looks. But while it led her to change schools, her stint in the city jail ultimately didn't change DeLeon's view of the basic conflict.

"Them girls were looking at my mom and me ugly," she says. "To tell you the truth, if I were still at Sam Houston, and they were looking at me the same way, I would have fought them all over again.

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