The Pershing Eight

Pershing Middle School officials ousted eight students in the incident over a lighter that looked like a firearm.
Houston Press

A game resembling hot potato broke out last week at a gym class at Pershing Middle School. But the object being passed around was a white-and-chrome lighter shaped like a handgun. According to student accounts, it changed hands numerous times, with some kids waving it like a gun. One girl feigned getting shot.

A coach caught sight of the mischief and quickly brought it to a halt -- literally blowing the whistle on the horseplay. The lighter dropped to the ground, and the children froze in their tracks.

By all indications in today's climate of youthful violence, carrying the firearm-looking lighter to school was a serious infraction for the kid who brought it onto campus. And the other kids in the group where it was being handled also would be in store for some discipline.

But in the fallout that followed the May 9 incident, all eight -- they ranged from sixth- to eighth-graders -- were ordered expelled. For an entire year.

That means they will be sent to an alternative school, where their classmates for the next year will include youths who have committed school-related felonies.

"[School officials] have done something very drastic for a little thing. It's a toy gun," protests Florentino Arellano. His 11-year-old son, Ivan, was expelled.

HISD officials say they were just following the letter of law -- in this case, the district's student conduct code. "The rules are absoluteŠ.Replicas of guns are not allowed in school. To possess one is a violation of the Code of Student Conduct," HISD spokesman Terry Abbott says in an e-mail.

The clause pertaining to replicas of guns was added in the aftermath of last year's massacre at Columbine High School, and other shootings and violence at schools elsewhere in the nation.

Abbott says the student who brought the lighter to school pretended it was a real gun, and a district police officer said she would react as if it was a real firearm. Three more students were suspended for not reporting the gun to school workers.

Some students say they initially mistook the lighter for a real gun, but the prevailing mood was one of curiosity and playfulness, not fear. Ivan, a sixth-grader, says he held the lighter for about ten seconds before joining a baseball game.

Parents are not protesting that their children violated school rules. And they do not quarrel with the notion that the kids should be punished for that. It's the severity that they find appalling. While school officials pointed out the infraction, they did not say if district policy requires such severe punishment or if there is discretion allowed in determining the appropriate discipline.

Ivan's mother, Rosalia, recalls reading over the code of conduct with her child. She believes rules should be respected, but that there should be leeway when the case involves youthful spontaneity. "We the parents try to lead them down the right road, with no errors in life. But if a child is with other kids, they get into mischief. Maybe they thought it was a game."

Under the code, the students committed an offense on par with assault, terrorist threats and drug dealing, says Danny Fiorella, an assistant principal at Pershing. Most, if not all, of the expelled students had good behavioral records at Pershing, but that had no bearing on the case, Fiorella says.

"You're trying to take your job seriously and keep the school safe and orderly," Fiorella says. "Adolescents do silly things because they're impulsive and they don't think. But unfortunately, when you have to punish them based on the Code of Student Conduct Š it is a tough decision."

Fiorella declined to discuss the specifics of the case and deferred questions to Joel Willen, the school's principal, who did not return calls. Abbott confirms that the students were ousted, though he insists they were not expelled, but rather "reassigned" to an alternative school.

Seventh-grader Roberto Hernandez was the student who brought the lighter to school. He had bought it the previous weekend at a flea market and wanted to show it off to his friends.

Hernandez says he passed the lighter to a friend at the beginning of gym class. He remained inside playing basketball, while the other boy took the lighter with him to the playing fields.

"I realize I did a big mistake. I should have thought before taking it [to school]," he says in a faltering voice. "I will accept my consequences. I don't know what to sayŠ.It was my fault that [the others] got in trouble. I really feel bad about that."

His parents, both Mexican immigrants, came down hard on their son when they heard what he had done. His father, Ramiro, was particularly upset, because he had given the boy the money to buy the lighter, which contained no fluid, as a toy. He says he never thought Roberto would take it to school.

"I was very angry. I said, 'You've never given us problems before. And now this? I won't tolerate it!' "

Ramiro Hernandez says he now takes his son to his carpenter jobs so the boy can experience for himself the hard life of manual labor and thus might strive for more.

As furious as the parents are at their children for the incident, they are even angrier at the school's severe reprisal. Arellano, a waiter, readily admits Ivan is not perfect. The sixth-grader doesn't make stellar marks. He was disciplined once for kissing a girl at school. But none of those infractions prepared Arellano for last week's shock that his son would have to attend a school operated by the HISD contractor Community Education Partners.

Students at the district's two CEP campuses pass through metal detectors to enter and leave school. Students spend much of the day in the same classroom, parked in front of computers.

HISD has touted the CEP schools as institutions that take troublemakers out of mainstream classrooms and reform them ["Making (Up) the Grade," by Wendy Grossman, April 6]. The contract with the Nashville-based company that runs the schools calls for a minimum enrollment of 2,500 students next year. Enrollment currently stands at about 2,230. Critics contend that the alternative schools have been unprepared to handle so many students, and that youngsters there often falter academically. District Superintendent Rod Paige lauds the program and points to testing by CEP that shows strong learning gains by students there.

Arellano doesn't see his son as CEP timber. The boy's grades have dropped a little lately, he says, but he's a good kid who still shows a keen interest in school.

"He's not a saint, you understand. He's had some problems, but not so much to send him there," Arellano says.

Ivan frets about the prospect of the new school. "They say it's like a jail," he says. "Yes, I'm afraid."

Alice Gates, an educational psychologist who practices in the West University area near Pershing, says the fact that the children are being plucked out of the mainstream could have adverse effects on their development.

"It's hard when you get labeled as a troublemaker. Some are likely to accept the label and decide the system is against them. They become oppositional and angry or become terrified by the whole experience," she says. "A lot's going to depend on how it's handled by the family."

Gates says going to a CEP school could cause the students further harm.

"This is not a prep school they're going to. It's a correctional facility. It either hardens them or intimidates them to the point of being fearful."

Parents are wondering why their children don't get a second chance at Pershing, especially when they have not had serious problems before. Some say they will protest the expulsion and hope to resolve the matter with Pershing administrators.

Abbott says the decision can be appealed to the district's area superintendent, Kaye Stripling, who will make a final decision. Parents such as Arellano, who speak little English, don't relish the prospect of bringing their case before the superintendent. For many, paying for a lawyer is out of the question.

Some of the parents wonder if their children will be allowed to complete the current school year. Arellano was told he would hear from school officials about whether Ivan could return to classes. He still had not received word by the end of last week.

E-mail John Suval at

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