What's the Next Step at Sharpstown High School?

LULAC Attorney Alberto Ruiz thinks there's more work to be done at Sharpstown High
LULAC Attorney Alberto Ruiz thinks there's more work to be done at Sharpstown High
Photo by Margaret Downing

In many respects, the latest dust-up/embarrassment at Sharpstown High School, in which students claimed Principal Rob Gasparello had hit them, has been resolved to the satisfaction of all.

Houston ISD investigated and cleared Gasparello saying that "HISD Police has concluded its investigation into allegations related to Sharpstown High Principal Rob Gasparello. No evidence was found to substantiate any of the criminal allegations and the principal has been cleared to return to campus."

By this week, at least two of the students involved have moved on to Liberty High School, an HISD charter school dedicated to serving recent immigrants with limited English. So presumably these kids are in a better place and whatever did or did not go on between any of them and the Sharpstown principal will not continue.

Attorney Alberto Ruiz, legal representative for LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) in Houston and San Antonio, was involved in the case, representing two of the students involved. He says he's happy that those two are back in school and can get on with their education.

But he continues to express his belief that something is wrong about the culture at Sharpstown and that it needs to change what he sees as ill-treatment of minority students, particularly Hispanic ones with limited English.

Ruiz entered the case when he was contacted by some of the teens who claimed Principal Gasparello had slapped, punched or otherwise hit them. He described the two boys he ended up representing as "C-plus, B students who want to be in school."

One of the boys he represented he was was "labeled as a gang leader" and was told he was involved in meeting with a group causing trouble on campus, Ruiz says. According to the attorney, this is because during lunch and break times the student - he called him Student A - hung out with other students from El Salvador.

One boy got in trouble, he says, for his pants hanging down. "He pulled them up and got slapped in the face," Ruiz says. In another case, a student got jumped by some guys in a car and ran back to the campus for help. Once there, the student got in trouble for defending himself, Ruiz says.

At the same time as HISD was investigating, Ruiz and his group came to their own conclusions. Four of the young men (there were six in all, two of whom are African American, he says) had three things in common, he says.

"They were recent immigrants. They were Hispanic and they had very limited English," he says.

The problem for a school with just-arrived limited English speakers, especially in the upper grades, Ruiz says, is that they can be viewed as a liability to a school's rating, based in large part on how students do on statewide standardized tests.

"Any student that arrives in the U.S. is going to need a year to two to make the transition," Ruiz says.

Bob Kimball, who has a long history with the Houston school district first as an assistant principal at Sharpstown, then as a whistle blower at the school and finally as a frequent critic of the district for several years, is chair of the LULAC District 8 education committee and doesn't think much of Gasparello's actions, bluntly saying he shouldn't be a principal anywhere.

In a February 21 letter to HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, Kimball, Rick Dovalina, director of Texas LULAC District 8 and Agustin "Augie" Pinedo, director of Texas LULAC District 18, charge that "HISD has a long history of 'pushing out' Hispanic students with a total disregard of Texas laws," and says it is unfairly labeling students as being gang members when they are not.

On February 10 , "the students were told they were no longer allowed to receive an education at SHS and administratively withdrawn by the Principal," the letter to Grier says. "They were intentionally, indeed forcibly pushed out of Sharpstown High School by Principal Rob Gasparello, which is in clear violation of the laws of Texas."

LULAC objected and HISD re-enrolled the students on February 17, but the letter says, were shortly thereafter suspended and referred to a Discipline Alternative Education Program for 45 days, a decision formalized in a February 20 meeting. The letter writers believe this was done in retaliation for the students filing charges against Gasparello.

Ruiz attended that meeting and says the HISD representatives told them they couldn't ask any questions. According to the LULAC letter, "no evidence was provided to the parent of the alleged gang activities of the student. The administrators could not even identify the name of the presumed 'gang,'" even after months of investigation, the letter states.

This, of course, is not the first time Principal Gasparello's alleged actions have been called to account. In November 2013 Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson charged him with failure to report suspected child abuse involving other adults and Sharpstown students. Gasparello was reassigned and supposed to stay away from Sharpstown. But an uproar ensued when the Houston Federation of Teachers charged that Gasparello had actually been staying in contact with the school -- directing it from afar -- during his reassignment. HISD defended this, saying his years of expertise were valuable assets to the school.

Ruiz says little was to be gained by dragging Gasparello through an extended court action and that in their latest meeting the principal seemed genuinely open to finding a way for these students to continue in school. He still wants Gasparello and the Sharpstown administration to listen more to students; the ones he represented say they tried to explain their actions and were shut down by school employees.

In fact, he says Gasparello has agreed to hold a press conference to address the student body about the accusations of abuse. Ruiz also says his group would like to see a third party hotline established that would handle calls from students reporting alleged abuse in HISD. Another would be a handbook for parents that tells them what their rights are if their kids get in trouble at school, Ruiz says -- although HISD would probably argue it already does that.

Some people have already decided the rights and wrongs of things at Sharpstown. Is it a school overrun with gangs and the bad kids just need to be weeded out, by any measures necessary? Or is this a case of kids banding together and piling it on a beleaguered principal? Some people distrust anything the HISD administration has to say -- they say that of course HISD cleared its own principal. Others dismiss LULAC as nothing more than flamethrowers who exaggerate events and cause trouble.

Teenage boys of whatever ethnicity are not always the most pleasant creatures to be around. Sometimes, neither are frustrated teachers and administrators. Gasparello presides over a school with some daunting stats: of the 1,300-plus students at Sharpstown, 90 percent are on free and reduced price lunches, and 27 percent -- more than a quarter of all students -- are English Language Learners.

Again, whatever happened or didn't happen is hard to tell. Slap, punch, a friendly pop to the head? We weren't there. But it's not difficult at all to know that some better communication is called for and that more attention should be paid.


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