A Diet Coke shared among friends was enough to undo 12-year-old Alyssa Nemec's life.
The seventh-grader at Garland T. McMeans Junior High went to the gym before first bell on September 24. She joined some friends, including an eighth-grader holding the soda. Offered a sip, Alyssa took one and said it tasted bad.
It was spiked with alcohol. Alyssa hustled away immediately.
Word got around and she was called to the office later that day. She told what had happened, adding that she was not aware of the alcohol in the drink before she sipped it. According to her mother, Alyssa thought she was aiding school administrators find out the truth and getting help for the eighth-grader.
"As soon as my daughter said, 'Yes, I took a drink,' they shut down and didn't listen to anything else she had to say," Cindy Nemec says.
Alyssa was handed a ticket -- minor in possession of alcohol by consumption -- and was suspended. This was followed by 60 school days in an alternative education center operated by the Katy Independent School District.
The A and B student was told her cheerleading days were over for that year and the next. While housed at the "Opportunity Awareness Center" in Katy, she was not allowed to attend any KISD-sponsored events. Her brother was playing his senior year of football; she couldn't go watch.
She has a class C misdemeanor on her record. In court she got three months' probation, six hours of an alcohol awareness class and eight hours of community service. This was the same punishment dealt to the eighth-grader who brought the alcohol to school. No less.
A good record and testimonials from teachers changed nothing. Alyssa went to a school with metal detectors and handheld scanners. She had to wait each day for a security guard to escort her if she wanted to use the restroom.
When she came back to McMeans, one teacher turned her back on her. She had trouble fitting in; instead of the bright preppy clothes she wore before, she was dressing in black. Her grades suffered, not a surprise since statewide statistics show that kids who spend long amounts of time in alternative centers regularly fall behind once they return to the more rigorous coursework in regular school.
No one ever advised Alyssa that what she said might incriminate her. After her interrogation, she was told to clean out her locker. She sat in the office for at least two more hours before her parents were called. Even if she had been found not guilty in the courtroom, the school punishment is independent of that proceeding and would have been the same.
According to statistics from the Texas Education Agency, Katy ISD hands out more punishments than most districts in the state. It has a good reputation for safety and high academic standards. But an increasing number of parents are charging it with serious deficits in common sense and compassion.
It's always remarkable to watch something like the Nemec situation unfold. Some people say the school badly overreacted. Others applaud the get-tough approach, a philosophy that's been embraced across the country since Columbine. Make no mistake, this is not a battle of the world against Katy ISD. This is a conflict between some parents and the district, parents who are still struggling to enlist others in their cause.
Cindy Nemec thought her daughter's treatment was over the top. School officials said they had witnesses casting a less innocent light on Alyssa's imbibing, but according to Cindy Nemec, the school wouldn't listen to other kids supporting her daughter. Kris Taylor, KISD spokeswoman, says the district would be glad to tell what its investigation revealed, but the Nemecs won't give their permission to make it public. "At this time there's really nothing I can say other than the investigation showed that this punishment was appropriate," Taylor says.
Cindy Nemec began collecting other stories, the best known of which is the case of the Korean pencil sharpener. Young Christina Lough received seven days of in-school suspension and was removed as president of the National Junior Honors Society and student council at McMeans because she brought a pencil sharpener to school on October 8 that officials deemed a weapon.
Christina's mother, Sumi, brought the sharpener that resembles a penknife and has a two-inch blade, back from a trip to South Korea. Christina had brought it to school for some time, unnoticed. A classmate of Christina's borrowed it during a quiz and left it out on her desk. The next day, the assistant principal called the Loughs, saying Christina had committed a Level III offense.
The Loughs pleaded that their daughter had no intention of hurting anyone, that there had been a misunderstanding due to cultural differences. Nothing worked. They filed a lawsuit against the district last October 14.
KISD took a lot of criticism for its stance. But Taylor insists it was right, no matter how unpopular. "If you looked at that thing, it was really a very highly sharpened blade," Taylor says. "If you just laid it down and asked ten people if it could be used as a weapon, nine of them would say 'absolutely.'"
In a November 27 letter to the editor in the Katy Sun, Leonard E. Merrell, KISD superintendent, put the conflict on the backs of parents who've had children accused of wrongdoing. As he put it, any conflict that arises does so "when 'my' child becomes the one who is disciplined."
Merrell said there is no zero-tolerance policy in Katy ISD, except where federal or state law specifically dictates the discipline. At lower levels, he wrote, "teachers and administrators exercise flexibility and often consider the student's total record when determining punishment."
Compassion, he said, is warranted but should not be confused with "an abdication of our responsibility to enforce policies that insure a safe learning environment.
"When there is too much latitude in the system, it becomes chaotic," he wrote. The district should never operate a system where there's one set of rules for the "good" kids and another for the "bad."
Members of Katy Zero Tolerance (www.KatyZeroTolerance.com) agree with most of the points Merrell made. Many of them live in Katy because of its schools' reputation. Most are self-described conservatives, firm believers in law and order.
In fact, the group's president, Fred Hink, first wrote a letter to the editor supporting the administration, saying: "It's not OK to bring a weapon if you make C's, but if you're an honor student it is? If a school district is going to have a policy then the punishment should be enforced equally and without regard to the perpetrator."
In a subsequent letter, though, he said he had changed his mind, determining that in this rush to keep schools safe, another problem had been created. After listening to the Nemecs and the Loughs, he had come to believe that the Katy disciplinary policy is not consistent with the U.S. justice system: "innocent until proven guilty, the right to due process, the right to question your accuser."
Mary Van Der Loop's son did an admittedly dumb thing. When another kid brought a backpack full of knives to KISD's Memorial Parkway Junior High, Steven got one. He stuffed it in his backpack and took it home. The next day, after the kid with all the knives was discovered and got around to naming names, Van Der Loop and her husband, Bill Bresett, got a call from school. The assistant principal asked for the knife so the school could finish its investigation. Bresett made two trips home and found it.
Investigating officers measured the blade -- two and three-fourths inches -- whereupon the assistant principal told them that since it was longer than two and a half inches, Steven would have to spend eight weeks at the alternative school. If his father hadn't found the knife, Steven would have served just three days of in-school suspension.
Van Der Loop and her husband visited the center and decided to opt out.
These weren't just parents having a case of the vapors. Their older son had been in trouble throughout junior high and high school. Alternative school would have been good for him, Van Der Loop wrote. But Steven was a different child and didn't need to learn the things his older brother already knew about: "who the cocaine dealers were who had guns where to buy cigarettes and beer underage, where to get marijuana."
They homeschooled Steven through December. Now they live in a 35-foot-long trailer on some land they bought in Flatonia, taking turns staying with their children there and operating their businesses back in town. Their children are enrolled in the Flatonia school district, where, Van Der Loop says, the principal told them ahead of time that for the same offense, Steven would have been suspended for a week.
According to the Texas Education Agency in 2001-2002 (the latest figures available), of the 39,478 students in Katy ISD, 3,098 were in disciplinary placements. This compared to Cy-Fair with 70,985 students and only 754 placements, Fort Bend with 59,217 students and 667 placements, and Clear Creek with 31,839 students and 317 placements. Closest to Katy was the Spring Branch district with 32,945 students and 2,793 placements. In Houston ISD out of 211,762 students, there were 4,069 placements that year.
Katy says the way the state collects its numbers is misleading. Bonnie Holland, executive assistant to the superintendent, says KISD puts all its students in a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program employing certified teachers as opposed to the in-school suspension program used in other districts. The state doesn't record the ISS numbers, so, for example, it is not noting that while Cy-Fair sent only 707 students to DAEP, it had another 7,479 sent to ISS, Holland says. That makes the total much higher than what KISD did that year. Fred Hink's son never got into any really bad trouble, but Hink thinks that may be partly because he was lucky enough to be able to intervene early on in what was unfolding.
According to Hink, when he drives junior high kids home, what he hears is "a mountain of fear." Playing into all of this is something called the Safety Net Program, an anonymous system by which kids can inform on each other using a school form. Taylor says this has nothing to do with snitching, and everything to do with helping. Nothing ever happens until after an in-depth investigation, she says. Still, that help often comes with a hefty dose of punishment, Taylor concedes.
For every parent who takes his case public, there are more who remain anonymous, saying they fear retaliation from the school. Some of these tales of woe seem like petty retaliations, others more life-altering:
-- One mother told the story of her son, a special ed student at a Katy high school, who was accused of drawing graffiti on a wall. "My son can't draw at all," she says. The school kept quizzing him about it, kept after him to say who had been involved, telling him it was a felony offense just to conceal information. Finally he went to one teacher and she put a halt to the questioning. In another instance, police questioned her son and his mother still wasn't notified.
-- Two years ago, a Katy Taylor freshman girl rode to a football game with new friends, one of whom started passing around alcohol. The girl declined and sat with other friends at the game. The alcohol was discovered, the names of all the car's occupants were secured, and the next thing she knew, the girl was sentenced to ten weeks in alternative school. An assistant principal had even smelled her breath, saying he couldn't smell anything.
According to her mother, the girl, now a junior, has had a terrible high school experience ever since. Labeled a troublemaker upon her return, the girl initially was told she couldn't try out for the softball team. She was finally allowed to, but sat on the bench all season, her mother says. She was told not to sign up for softball the next semester.
"We sorely wish we had never moved to Katy, to the supposedly 'superior' school district. There is nothing exemplary about the way they treat our children here. It is a military environment with Hitler ideas. If you are not 'perfect,' get out or we will get you out," the mother says.
-- In another Katy junior high, a 12-year-old boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, kept acting up in class. His father says he and his wife went to the school and told administrators that the "behavioral intervention plan" the school had devised for his son wasn't working. Nothing changed, and things escalated until he got a misdemeanor ticket.
"That ticket had a bad emotional and mental effect on him. At times I went to bed laying down next to his bed, holding his hand," his father says. "He was crying because he was so upset about it, and he was so convinced he was a bad kid."
KISD critics say an appeals process is nonexistent. One says her appeal to the superintendent's office got her the remark that they don't interfere in decisions made at the high school level. Bonnie Holland says the state provides for no appeal if the punishment is no more than 60 days.
According to Cindy Nemec, administrators regularly employ what she calls a bullying technique.
When a school official is handing out discipline and a parent objects, the administrator will say, "Well, just let me say that I'm going easy on the child. I could have given a lot worse, could have gone up a level or added more days," Nemec says. "The principal makes you think they are doing you a favor."
Taylor says administrators are not allowed to change the level of the offense, higher or lower. Yet Nemec says she's witnessed this from four people herself and has been told of this by others.
Critics of Katy's system say administrators and school board members haven't listened to their complaints about discipline at all. Taylor says that's not true. She points to the district's decision four years ago to begin allowing students to bring cell phones to school after parent complaints.
In like manner, she says, there are already plans to ask for more parental involvement to review the discipline policies to make sure they are being applied fairly and equally.
As it stands now, as soon as they step on school property, Katy ISD students -- in fact, most students -- lose the civil rights that adults take for granted. They can be interrogated without an attorney. They can have their possessions routinely searched. They aren't allowed to contact their parents.
Cindy Nemec begins to cry as she struggles to explain her biggest frustration: "We can't protect our children."
Fred Hink echoes that. "In a way I feel I should be at school the entire time my kids are there, shadowing them to make sure that they do not break any of the discipline codes."
In any school kids face a lot of pressure to get good grades and stay out of trouble. That's true in Katy, too. Be good. Better yet, be perfect.
This is a no-mistakes zone.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.