The A Student

It didn't matter that Merrilee Littlewood doesn't drink alcohol.
Todd Spivak

It was a normal day for Merrilee Littlewood, starting with 6 a.m. Bible study, then school and volunteer work at a home for seniors. Later that Thursday evening, after watching a talent show at Dulles High School, a friend called and invited her to a house party on Sugar Creek. Not knowing what was in store, she decided to drop by.

It was just a few weeks before graduation, and the place was jammed with teenagers. Littlewood waded through the crowd and immediately went upstairs to check out the giant living room loaded with big-screen TVs and other high-end electronics. She was there for maybe ten minutes when a cop burst in through a second-story back door, knocked over a table and sprinted downstairs to let in five other officers.

Littlewood says she had no clue there were no parents at the party. Nor did she see the cases of Dos Equis and Corona stacked in corners of rooms throughout the house. But even as the officers barked at her to sit down and shut up, she wasn't all that worried. She knew she hadn't broken any laws. As a devout Mormon, she abstains from drinking. And there's more incentive to stay sober: Littlewood suffers from Crohn's disease. Alcohol mixed with the potent pills she takes daily could permanently damage her liver. So she never drinks. Not even a sip.

But all that hardly mattered to the officers, who issued citations for minor in possession of alcohol to everyone they could get their mitts on. As reported in the Houston Press ("Home Alone," June 2), about half of the teens at the April 14 party escaped by either hiding in the house or jumping off the balcony and scattering into the neighborhood. The remaining 37 were busted. Many pleaded with the officers to let them take breath analyzer tests to prove their innocence. But they were out of luck. Everyone, the officers announced, would be served with class C misdemeanor tickets.

For Littlewood and a handful of others, the punishments didn't end there. Angry parents threatened to sue the Sugar Land Police Department for what they considered an illegal raid conducted by overzealous cops who forced their way into the house with neither search nor arrest warrants. Many of the kids appealed the tickets. But neither of these factors, nor the fact that the incident occurred miles away from school property, deterred Dulles Principal Lance Hindt and the school district's area superintendent from taking action.

About midway through the next week, Littlewood, a National Honor Society student with a 3.7 grade point average who had never been in any trouble at school, was called to the principal's office. She signed a statement attesting that she was at the party but did not drink. She says that an assistant principal assured her that she would not be disciplined. The school was following an "honor code," he told her. If she says she didn't drink, she wouldn't be punished.

Less than a week later, Littlewood was suspended from an elite leadership program for the rest of her senior year. In other cases, students were booted from the baseball team just as the playoffs began and were kept from participating in a weekend-long choral recital for which they had spent the entire year rehearsing.

Now flash forward to October 6. Some six months after the raid, all charges were dismissed against Littlewood and 16 other teens who fought their tickets. Littlewood has since gone on to college. Fortunately, the incident did not affect the partial academic scholarship she received from Texas A&M University, where she is now enrolled and lives off-campus in a condominium that she shares with a friend from Dulles. Though she's many miles away, thoughts of her alma mater linger.

Last week Littlewood filed a federal lawsuit against Fort Bend Independent School District and its superintendent, Betty Baitland. In the suit, Littlewood claims the school's actions violated her constitutional right to due process. Her attorney predicts that other teens ticketed at the house party will follow Littlewood's lead by suing the school district for doling out suspensions before the kids had their day in court.

"Without proof, I got in trouble and punished," Littlewood says. "I was never given the right to prove myself innocent. The schools shouldn't have so much power over us."

Community service work is a common form of punishment for people who commit minor criminal offenses. But Littlewood was already devoted to volunteerism. Through an extracurricular program at her high school, she donated her time at a community hospital, a home for seniors and an elementary school, where she mentored students.

To reprimand Littlewood for attending an underage drinking party, school officials exacted a peculiar punishment: They barred her from performing community service work.  

The school issued 20-day suspensions from extracurricular activities to every student ticketed by police. Littlewood and a handful of others cried foul, since most of those who were ticketed either didn't participate in extracurricular activities or were about to graduate and their activities had ended earlier in the year. The actions taken by the school were arbitrary and capricious, Littlewood's lawsuit states.

Principal Hindt and Superintendent Baitland declined to comment on the suit.

Littlewood's father, Merril, a former Alief ISD board member, swapped e-mails with Baitland a couple of days before the suspensions were announced. In them, he asserted his daughter's innocence and asked that Baitland "await the outcome of any legal proceedings before taking any action." Responding, Baitland assured him that school officials were "waiting for concrete information before making any campus sanctions."

On top of her suspension, during the last month of her senior year, Littlewood was forced to take an alcohol abuse awareness class. For one hour each day, she had to sit at a center table in the school library and research the dangerous effects of alcohol. It was a kind of public square, she says, designed to humiliate her.

"I felt like I was being judged," Littlewood says. "A lot of teachers I felt close to were disappointed in me. I didn't want to be a disappointment."

Merril Littlewood says this scarlet letter his daughter was made to wear was mean-spirited and intended to make a mockery of her. He's also upset about the school's appeals process. Littlewood says an administrator at the school district advised him to appeal the disciplinary action. But after he filed the paperwork, nothing ever came of it. This is a common complaint of parents who run up against the appeals process in Houston-area public schools. Even if they get to the appeals stage, most say, it's nothing but a rubber stamp for the action already taken.

"It's not good policy," Merril Littlewood says. "It begs the question, why did they advise us of an appeals process?"

The Sugar Land Police Department has a reputation of taking the hard line in its encounters with the public. Its many critics call it a Rambo Force.

On the night of the house party, several witnesses say, an officer threatened to shoot a 16-year-old girl for reaching into her purse to use a cell phone. A 17-year-old boy was cuffed and hauled off to jail for asking if he could call his father, an attorney and former mayor of Sugar Land, before signing a ticket.

Police Chief Steve Griffith declines to comment on these accusations. Griffith joined the department in August after former chief Lisa Womack left for a job in Illinois. Some 21 complaints were filed against the Sugar Land Police Department by teens and their parents after the raid. One officer was later disciplined for being rude or discourteous. Griffith says he never bothered to read the complaints, since the internal affairs investigations were closed by the time he took the job.

Like his predecessor, Griffith fully supports the way the officers handled the incident. "If an offense is occurring in an officer's view, he has a right to go inside," Griffith says. He adds that the minors' proximity to alcohol was sufficient evidence to issue everyone MIP citations, whether they had been drinking or not.

The tickets were thrown out on a technicality, Griffith says, since the officers were unable to identify the teens. Too much time lapsed, he says, and too many kids were involved for the officers to remember them all.

Likewise, FBISD staff attorney Bernadette Gonzalez says the school district has no regrets about the way it handled the incident. She predicts that Littlewood's lawsuit, which represents the first time a current or former student has sued the school district in federal court, will be tossed out.

Gonzalez says that extracurricular activities are a privilege, not a right. Except for cases that result in expulsion, she says that the burden of proof for punishing students is very low. Simply put, Littlewood didn't receive due process because she's not entitled to it.

Gonzalez points to precedents in Texas law that demonstrate her point. For instance, back in 1996, a senior pitcher for Cypress Falls High School was benched before a playoff game after it was discovered that he had written something unflattering about his coach for a class assignment. Like Littlewood, the teenager claimed in a federal lawsuit that Cypress-Fairbanks ISD had violated his right to due process.

But the judge concluded that due process is meant to protect an individual from a loss of life, liberty or property. "Public school students have no constitutionally protected interest in participating in a school's athletic program," the judge ruled.  

The lesson, according to Gonzalez, is that the courts interfere in school affairs only in extreme cases. Asked if what happened to Littlewood was fair, Gonzalez says, "I don't really think that fairness weighs into it. It's not that critical of an interest."

Try telling that to Littlewood, who says her final weeks at Dulles were so stressful and miserable they will forever dampen her memory of high school. The worst part of her punishment, she says, was the anticipation that she would have to give a presentation in front of a large group of students on the dangers of alcohol. As it turned out, she had to stand before only a couple of faculty members.

As a visual aid, Littlewood unwrapped a cauliflower. This represented the brain. She covered it with a cloth. This represented the brain's protective barrier. She then held up a bottle of rubbing alcohol. This represented the beer that she never drinks. She proceeded to pour the liquid onto the cloth, which seeped into the cauliflower. This showed how alcohol breaks through barriers and spreads harmful toxins into the brain.

She got a 99 on the project.

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