Lowering the Boom
The audio alone sounds like a prison riot.
On January 27, a fight between students broke out during the lunch hour at Andy Dekaney High School, located near Farm to Market Road 1960 and Interstate 45. Cell-phone video shows complete mayhem as more than 30 teenagers unleashed haymakers at any head, nose or jaw within striking range. At one point, there was so much yelling and screaming that the cell phone's microphone turned the unsettling cacophony into static.
Later that day, Spring Independent School District officials released a statement to the media: The fight, they insisted, occurred between four students.
"It wasn't just four people. There were a lot more. I saw others getting jumped. One kid, after the fight, was bleeding from his ear and into his mouth," says a Dekaney High freshman we'll call Felipe. Houston Press has changed the names of every parent, student and teacher who was interviewed for this story because they say they fear retaliation by the school.
This wasn't the first time that Dekaney's student body had been besieged by violence. On May 5, weeks before the close of the 2010-2011 school year, two kids were sent to the hospital after an all-out throw-down in the hallways.
Leslie, a Wildcat senior who has attended Dekaney all four years, says that the school, which opened in 2007 to help deal with the overpopulated Westfield High, has always been rough.
However, until this year, Leslie had never seen such chaos. Parents say it's happening because the kids, who graduated from middle schools such as Bammel and Robertson, run the asylum. (According to the Texas Education Agency, 73.6 percent of the students come from economically disadvantaged families. The ethnic breakdown of Dekaney's 2,799 student body, according to a 2010-2011 TEA report, is 61.6 percent African American, 32.9 percent Hispanic, 2.9 percent Asian and 1.7 white.)
When Leslie began the 2011 fall quarter, some classes didn't have teachers — not even substitutes — for more than a month. "They still might not have teachers," says Leslie. "Teachers would just quit. I had a journalism class and she couldn't handle her class. She left without saying anything." According to Felipe, teachers who bother to show up sometimes flee their classrooms when a fight starts.
Some parents and students say that it's not just violence and absentee staff that's turning Dekaney into a hole.
Leslie and Felipe have seen fellow students on the second floor toss liquid bleach onto kids on the first, just for the heck of it. Whenever one Dekaney mother picks up her son from school, she sees some of the girls wearing "two-inch skirts and six-inch heels." And in what parents call a complete lack of institutional control, not one kid has had a student ID all year.
Since the January riot, Dekaney has attempted to seize control by clamping down on kids who are late to class. During its daily "tardy sweep," administrators and staff round up students who have been locked out of the classroom and send them to the gymnasium, where they're forced to sit, sans lunch, until the final bell.
Karen Garrison, director of public relations and communications at Spring ISD, says that there haven't been any violent episodes since the riot. Garrison — citing our "negative" Hair Balls blog about Dekaney's tardy sweep on February 1 — refused to answer any further questions and denied our requests to interview Dekaney and Spring ISD personnel.
A majority of students who spoke with the Press say that fights still happen and that the campus remains a tinderbox. One freshman, for instance, is too traumatized to ask for a hall pass to go to the bathroom, saying bullies remain in the hallway at all hours of the school day.
Overall, concerned parents say that it's too late for the school, whose motto is "Whatever It Takes," to try and enforce the rules. Instead, they think that Dekaney — which has put a freeze on all transfers out of the school — needs to be shut down and the entire staff replaced.
"Nothing has ever worked," says a parent whose son graduated from Dekaney two years ago. "There were plenty of times I couldn't get into that parking lot because the cops had it blocked off and there were helicopters flying above. It was crazy."
Aside from one Dekaney teacher who responded with a "thanks, but no thanks," the Press's numerous attempts to speak with current Dekaney staff members fell on deaf ears. The Press did get in touch with a former Dekaney educator, who confirmed that the culture was out of control during his tenure.
"It's seriously dangerous over there," says the teacher. "A lot of students would cuss out other teachers. I think the real problem is that parents are letting their kids do whatever they want when they're not at school. There's no accountability."
Because transferring isn't an option, some families have either moved or are making plans to ditch the surrounding area, which they say has been inundated with burglaries and home invasions. "It's going to get worse before it gets better," says a parent whose child is supposed to attend Dekaney in the fall, "and I'm not going to stick around to see what that looks like."
>During the first week after winter break, a group of Dekaney students cornered Felipe in the hallway between periods.
"Take off your shoes," the kids said to Felipe, who was wearing the new sneakers he had scored for Christmas. "We're going to kill you. Then we're going to take the shoes and run."
Felipe, a short, unassuming kid who wears braces, refused. For the remainder of the day, he took the back way to his classes and then slinked away from campus after last period.
A minute into his walk home, the back of his head felt as if it had caught fire.
A defenseless Felipe fell to the ground, clutching the area where a fist had hammered into his skull. Because his eyes were filled with the white light of pain, he couldn't see who pried the shoes off his feet. Felipe, who missed seven days of school due to his injuries, says that his attackers have never been caught.
According to a number of Hispanic parents and students, raw violence is not only commonplace at Dekaney, it's also racially motivated. "It's completely out of control and nobody is listening to us," says a Dekaney mom. "Kids are getting jumped left and right in the school, out of the school, and it's Mexicans who are getting jumped."
Felipe's mom Misty, who now drops off and picks up her son every day, agrees. She doesn't want Felipe — who wears generic shoes to school so he doesn't attract attention — anywhere near the campus in the days leading up to Cinco de Mayo on May 5 because she's convinced that there will be fights.
Several African-American parents dispute the idea that black students are targeting Hispanic kids. Instead, they say it's the teachers and the school's overall lack of discipline that are the problem. "A lot of [teachers] are running scared," says one father. "But I don't blame them at all. I hate the place. I can't wait for my son and daughter to get out of there."
One thing that parents agree on: The rough stuff doesn't match the architecturally stunning school (located in unincorporated Harris County at 22351 Imperial Valley Drive), which models a luxury shopping mall. The $75 million, multistory campus that's adorned with granite and oversized glass windows is named after the late Andrew Dekaney III, a treasured Spring ISD school-board member who died in 2004 following a six-month battle with lung cancer.
"It's a real beautiful school, but the kids messed it up. It's seriously sad," says a mother, who, like several others, believes that Dekaney isn't serious about academics. Parents say it's difficult to meet teachers and counselors face to face and that the school cares only about its athletic prowess, which includes a Texas 5A Division II State Championship in football and state runners-up in girls' basketball.
A 2010-2011 TEA performance report states that Dekaney, led by principal Delic Loyde since the 2009-2010 school year, was "academically unacceptable." (Despite this distinction, the International Center for Leadership in Education named Dekaney a model school in 2011.) Loyde, who won Spring ISD Secondary Principal of the Year in 2006 and 2007 while at Stelle Claughton Middle School, wouldn't answer the Press's questions.
Leslie, who sometimes doesn't leave campus until 8:30 p.m. due to extracurricular commitments, will graduate in a few months with an A/B average. She wants to go to college, but she has yet to apply because she believes that Dekaney hasn't prepared her for the next level.
"There's no organization. The teachers don't have it together and they're unprofessional. Some will talk to you like you're somebody on the street," explains Leslie. "There's a few good teachers, but most of them are more worried about discipline than they are about actually teaching, so it's hard to learn anything."
As a result, Leslie has been tempted to quit school altogether. This terrifies Leslie's mom Theresa, who dropped out of a rough high school as a teen.
"Maybe 60 percent of the kids are there to get an education. The rest don't do anything. I know for a fact my daughter is there to get her education," explains Theresa.
"My daughter recently told me, 'Mom, you're supposed to know the direction you're going when you're ready to go to college. Right now, after going to this school for four years, I don't know my direction.'"
A former Spring ISD teacher who was one of the 283 employees laid off in April 2011's budget cuts tells the Press that all of the secondary school educators she knew in the district (which includes Dekaney, Westfield, Spring and the Early College and Wunsche academies) were "extremely disgruntled" because of large classroom sizes that sometimes topped out at 35 students, as well as the district's hodgepodge operation.
"I was a new teacher and I could even tell that it was poorly run. I definitely didn't get the support that I needed and whenever there was a conflict, it seemed like they were making things up along the way," she says. "I now teach in a tight-knit school district where the administration will come running to help you."
Two days after the January 27 brawl, Dekaney administrators sent parents an e-mail explaining that if their kids weren't in class by 8 a.m., the classroom doors would be locked and the tardy ones would be sent to another location.
That spot was the school gymnasium. By mid-afternoon, several of the more than 200 students, who weren't allowed to eat lunch or leave the gym until after the final bell, started a small fire in the bleachers.
Since the riot, Spring ISD's Garrison insists, Dekaney has been "calm and orderly" due to a "safe and secure school plan" that includes the truancy guidelines (which parents and students believe is heavy-handed) as well as the addition of two on-campus police officers. Before February, a lone cop was responsible for monitoring the entire 80-acre site.
Garrison says that the number of tardy students has declined drastically. Felipe explains that the reason there aren't as many rule-breaking students is that "if you're late to class two times, you get suspended for three days." Instead of returning to school post-suspension, some kids have dropped out.
In addition to the tardiness policy, the school promised to more strictly enforce its dress code, which prohibits caps, hoodies, jeans with holes above the knees and "proper fitting and non-revealing" clothing.
"That has not changed whatsoever and I think that's ridiculous," says a Dekaney mom. "There are girls going to school in skintight skirts that are extremely short. With me having a son there, I don't appreciate that." Leslie adds that some of her classmates "look as if they're heading to the clubs."
Backpacks have been banned because, according to parents and students, a group of freshmen chucked firecrackers at kids in the hallways and because a teen from another school, who wasn't required to flash a student ID at the front desk, brought a gun onto campus. At press time, Dekaney, which doesn't boast a metal detector, still hadn't doled out ID cards to its students for the 2011-2012 school year.
Parents and students also believe there's a drug problem at Dekaney. Whenever Felipe retrieves his workout clothes from his gym locker, he can smell an odor of pot. And earlier in the school year, Principal Loyde told a group of parents that kids had been "trying to sell candy" on school grounds. "What 'candy' really meant was 'drugs,'" says a parent who attended the meeting.
Felipe says that trying to learn in such a haphazard environment is a joke. Like Leslie, some of his classes have been absent a steady teacher for more than a month. To pass the time, Felipe's classmates have blasted music from a boom box and given each other haircuts in the classroom.
Though Felipe admits that the environment has calmed down since the riot, he still witnesses fights each week. Recently, some bullies beat the crap out of Felipe's friend in the hallway. A cop, who arrived after the perpetrators fled, held down the beaten-up kid.
"My friend was yelling, 'I got jumped!' but the officer arrested him any way. He spent a couple of days in jail," says Felipe, who adds that he once saw a student who had been pummeled in a bare-knuckle brawl go into a seizure.
Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, director of communications of the Texas Education Agency, says that TEA sometimes sends consultants to help academically struggling schools. However, the agency doesn't have an intervention plan that strictly deals with behavior-challenged institutions.
"I can't think of a case where [behavior issues] were the only trigger. I'm particularly thinking of some Houston charter schools that were pretty violent, but they also had academic and financial problems, so we've put people with broad authority to try and get things back under control," says Ratcliffe. "Unless they get to the point where they're declared a persistently dangerous school with weapons on campus and murders, a lot of it was dealt with at the local school district."
While Felipe recovered from his punishing cheap shot, a desperate Misty tried to move him to Westfield High, a Spring ISD sister school, but administrators told her that they weren't allowing anyone to transfer out of Dekaney. Instead, Misty, who has flirted with the idea of home school, worries that one day her terrified son might not come home in one piece.
Though it was unusual, TEA's Ratcliffe says that Dekaney's decision to halt transfers is within the playing field because districts can set their own internal policies. According to a TEA lawyer, things would get dicey if a school district attempted to stop a kid from attending a school in another district.
Even if every parent tried to pull their kids out of a school, Ratcliffe explains that only a handful would get the green light. "They would take the ones where there was space and teachers available," she says, "but it would be a rare case where a school had a lot of excess capacity."
Instead of waiting for the moratorium to lift — and living another month in an "overly dangerous" neighborhood — Misty has almost closed on a house that's located within the Westfield boundaries. Misty, along with a number of parents who spoke with the Press, is also fed up with the area's outrageous crimes that she says have been committed in broad daylight by teenagers.
"They broke into a neighbor's place who's a cop," says Misty. "They were about to push a safe out a window when he came home. They got away." Parents and students also say that a group of teens held up a local Mexican food joint located less than a half-mile from Dekaney during the school's lunch hour. According to the rules, students aren't allowed to leave campus for lunch.
Not every parent of a bullied kid is desperate to get out of Dekaney. Rebecca, after meeting with Spring ISD Area I Superintendent Ruthie Foreman, says she's willing to give the school a chance to turn things around.
Earlier in the school year, Rebecca's son, a freshman who plays on one of the school's athletic teams, was beaten down on Imperial Valley Drive in a fashion similar to Felipe's assault: With a vicious, closed-fist strike to the back of the head that he never saw coming.
Rebecca submitted a transfer application to Spring ISD's Wunsche Career Academy, but has since decided to take a wait-and-see approach after meeting with Foreman, who showed Rebecca the improved truancy figures.
"The plan looked good on paper and my son feels a little bit better walking around in the hallways," says Rebecca. "I know things still aren't perfect because the other day, he had a sick stomach and he didn't feel safe enough to go to the restroom. I guess he doesn't go all day...but I'm willing to give it a chance because of my son. I don't think he wants me embarrassing him."
Misty couldn't care less if she's humiliating her son. She insists that Felipe carry a cell phone to school, even though he risks getting nailed with a $25 fine if caught with a powered-on phone. "If there's ever a bomb or a fight, I want to be the first one to know so I can come get him if he's in trouble," says Misty.
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