Wrong Time, Wrong Place
Meyson Garcia was a student at St. Pius, where he played on the football team and got pretty good grades. But during the summer before his junior year, he got more involved with Young Life, a Christian program for youth in his neighborhood which headquartered at nearby Waltrip High School. He made a lot of friends there who urged him to transfer to Waltrip.
He talked to his dad Alson about moving into the public school system. Alson had graduated years before from Waltrip himself, thought it was a pretty good school and agreed. So in fall 2011, his son — the "St. Pius kid," as he came to be known — moved on over.
And that's why on Thursday, September 1, Meyson was at a varsity football game between Waltrip and Pasadena at Delmar Stadium in which Waltrip was getting its butt kicked. The 5'10", 180-pound junior wasn't suited up — he hadn't made varsity; he was on the JV squad — but was in the stands watching with his father and friends.
Toward the end of the game, Meyson went down to the front of the stands, he says, to say some words of encouragement to a friend on the varsity squad. He eventually jumped down to the field and climbed over a waist-high concrete barrier placed along the sidelines to get closer.
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He didn't know it, but this was a big mistake. The Waltrip Code of Conduct doesn't allow bystanders on the sidelines. It didn't matter that he was on JV, or that he wasn't the only kid who'd ever done this at a game.
Tempers were running hot. One varsity player yelled at Meyson, telling him to get off the field, adding something about "You need to keep your white ass off the field, white boy," Meyson says. "Meyson told him okay, but that he is actually Mexican," Alson says. There are disputed accounts over whether Meyson said anything else in return — one witness says Meyson had an attitude because he hadn't made varsity; Meyson and his father say no, they understood all along that he'd never make it immediately after transferring.
The part that everyone can agree on is that Meyson promptly got back in the stands and that two brothers who played on the team, and who hadn't been involved in either of Meyson's conversations, came into the stands after him and started beating on him, one swinging his helmet at Meyson and punching him in the stomach, the other punching him in the face.
The fight got broken up, and everyone was separated. Initial statements were taken all round, and photographs were made of Meyson's bruised face (no one else was injured in the fracas.) Everybody went home to rest and recover.
The next day, Friday, Meyson spent almost entirely in Assistant Principal Lori Frodine's office, giving his statement to school officials and school Police Officer Reggie Washington. Washington issued Meyson a Class C misdemeanor citation — just like the other two boys got — for "disrupting a school activity."
By the following Tuesday, right after the Labor Day holiday, Meyson was at afternoon football practice when his dad drove over from work, walked on the field and told him he'd been suspended (along with the two brothers) and would not be coming back to school for the rest of the week.
Suspended from school and looking at a court date a month down the road — all of a sudden, Meyson's move to the public school system from the more sheltering confines of St. Pius was looking like a gamble that hadn't paid off.
Waltrip High is neither the worst nor the best high school in HISD. In 2009, it reached "recognized" status with the Texas Education Agency, but by 2011 it had dropped back to "academically acceptable."
The school does take its football seriously, as a page from the school's playbook entitled "2011 Waltrip Ram Defense" asks in all caps: "CAN WE PLAY INTELLIGENT IN A VIOLENT FRAME OF MIND?" Rule 10 cites "adjectives to describes us: 'mean, reckless, aggressive, fearless, intimidating.'"
Rule No. 9 requires: "At least 10 hits on the QB and ANY THAT START DO NOT FINISH." Wow — this is a call to what? Put severe hurt on a quarterback? Are we talking the high school version of pro football's bounty system? (When contacted, HISD spokesman Jason Spencer sighed, called it "typical high-school bravado" and added, "Of course we wouldn't condone anyone encouraging students to try to hurt one another. I'm not aware of anyone coming forward to accuse Waltrip of doing that.")
The goal was the district championship, which, late on that September 1 night, didn't seem too possible.
Alson Garcia never saw his son as anything but the victim; what the school calls a "fight," he labels "an attack." The first warning he had that those in authority might hold a different view came from the two Delmar security guards on Thursday night, who told him: "They were sorry that Meyson was assaulted and that it appeared to them that he had done nothing to provoke the attack. They also told me I needed to go to Meyson's school immediately and set things right to make sure Meyson was not punished for this event."
It was telling advice. According to Meyson, while he was writing his statement on Friday, Washingon kept saying he'd caused the incident. Meyson also says one of the varsity coaches came in and confronted the brothers, saying they were "an embarrassment to the team," and then turned to him and said, "I don't know how they do things at Pius, but here we support the team."
No one contacted Alson about what was going on with his son at school Friday — a not uncommon practice in the Houston Independent School District — so it wasn't until Meyson got home that night and handed his father the ticket that Alson learned what had happened.
On Tuesday morning, Alson met with Assistant Principal Frank A. Salinas and Washington, who said "that he heard from several people at the game that Meyson had been on the sidelines, heckling the players during the entire game." Alson said that couldn't be true because his son was sitting up in the stands with him during the entire game until the last five to ten minutes. Washington hadn't actually witnessed the fight — neither did Alson — but said he was sure Meyson had thrown some punches back. Meyson denies this.
"Officer Washington also said he still had the citation he issued to Meyson and could decide not to turn it in," Alson says. Alson urged Salinas and Washington to speak with more people, including those who said Meyson had done nothing, and left feeling somewhat encouraged. Later that day, though, a school employee, calling on behalf of Salinas, delivered the suspension news to Alson.
Returning the next morning to school, Alson says Salinas told him, "Meyson was more involved than he first thought," and that's why he'd added the suspension. (Two requests by the Houston Press for comment on the matter by HISD officials, placed through the school district's press office, were declined. The Press was also unable to reach the brothers involved in the incident.)
When Meyson was able to return to school on September 12, things continued on a downward course, he says. A coach kept after him. He says one teacher made reference to the September 1 incident and refused to accept him in her class. For the most part, he says, he got along fine with the brothers. The parents of the kid who'd told him to get off the field apologized that he'd in any way gotten Meyson in trouble, Alson says.
Meyson was told by one teacher that his records showed three days of unexcused absence. After explaining he'd been suspended, he was told to go to the office and straighten things out. When he asked the teacher three days after that to see if his record had been corrected, it had. Then, on September 17, Alson received a warning notice in the mail from Waltrip stating that "Meyson Garcia has violated the Compulsory School Attendance Law." More things to sort out.
About this time, Alson says, St. Pius called asking if the Garcias would reconsider because the school would really like Meyson back. Alson jumped at the chance, but once he brought up the citation, St. Pius said no way — they would not admit Meyson until the matter was cleared up. Alson made several appeals; none worked. His son was trapped.
Alson decided to yank his son from the football team, not wanting to chance anything else happening.
Meyson would go to school, do his work, keep his head down and come home.
Despite all of Alson's visits to Waltrip and attempts to stop the citation being filed in court, none of his attempted interventions worked. On October 12, Meyson and the two brothers had their court date in the night juvenile court run by Justice David Fraga.
The brothers, accompanied by their dad, were ready to plead guilty, but Fraga called them up to talk along with Meyson and refused to accept anyone's plea. He reset all three cases for November 8, saying he wanted more time to look into the matter. This was an incredibly hopeful sign to the Garcias; they took it to mean the judge didn't think they belonged in court, either.
The hope was dashed a few weeks later when they returned. The judge had had an apparent change of heart, perhaps bolstered by the outpouring of Waltrip personnel including Washington, Frodine and teacher Veronica Leonard, who the Garcias learned was to be the star witness against Meyson.
Offered a chance for community service with deferred adjudication and the possibility of a dismissal at the end, the brothers took it. Meyson's attorney, Byron Boenig, rejected the option on Meyson's behalf. "Basically what they made the offer on was exactly the same as the two boys who attacked him. In light of the fact that the kid didn't do anything wrong, I just thought that was kind of overreaching. And two, I like the kid. I don't think he should have to plead guilty to something he didn't do."
"I take things with a grain of salt," Boenig says. "I raised daughters and I've been through the school systems. I know kids do things that are not the right thing all the time. The description they have provided of Meyson has been off-kilter from the very beginning. There's nothing in his history that represents a troublemaking kid."
So they held out for a jury trial, which, when it was set for April 10, pretty much dashed any chance that the matter would be cleared up in time for Meyson to hop on back to St. Pius any time soon.
Over the Christmas holidays, Alson decided to try another route. He went over to St. Thomas High School. He was pretty exhausted by the whole thing by that time, he says.
"I told them, 'If you want him and want my money, okay; if not, I don't care,'" Alson says. Right at the start, he told them what the situation was, in fact, gave them copies of all the school and court correspondence he had to date.
St. Thomas called a couple days later and said they'd like to consider admitting Meyson. He would need a recommendation from his Waltrip teachers and principal; he'd have to come in for interviews with all his prospective teachers at St. Thomas, and he'd have to write an essay.
The other issue that St. Thomas was concerned about was whether Meyson, who'd already be starting halfway through the year, would be able to catch up with the courses with their heavy workloads. If they were going to try to do this, it'd have to be done soon.
And then, Alson Garcia got his moment of grace. "The Waltrip teachers were just amazing. There was no problem getting their recommendations."
Meyson's chemistry teacher, Charles Randolph, wrote that "Meyson has always displayed a high degree of integrity, responsibility and ambition" and "is an asset to any student body." His social studies teacher, Milton L. Dailey, who is also a coach at the school, wrote: "He is thoughtful and respects the rights and desires of others." His sociology teacher, Michael E. Stackhouse, noted that Meyson had maintained an A average in his class, "has always turned in assignments when they are due and I have never had any discipline issue with him."
All this was a far cry from the earlier portrait of Meyson at Waltrip as a mouthy troublemaker with no respect for the school's football tradition, an interloper who'd just caused trouble.
The only recommendation that was not immediately forthcoming was that of the school's principal, Steve Siebenaler, Alson says. It took a call from the dean of instruction at St. Thomas to Siebenaler to finally acquire that last puzzle part, he adds.
And so Meyson was admitted to the spring semester at St. Thomas. He still had his court date ahead of him, and the Garcias worried that an unfavorable outcome there would oust him.
On April 10, at 8 o'clock in the morning, the Garcias and their lawyer went to court before Municipal Judge Esmeralda Pena-Garcia. They carried the teacher recommendations on school letterhead, the school announcement listing Meyson on Waltrip's A-B honor roll for the fall semester, the invitations Meyson had received for trips abroad because of his grades and demonstrated leadership skills.
Alson also was carrying a report from J. Vara Investigations, a private-eye firm he'd hired to talk with witnesses in the case. The investigator talked with Officer Washington, who said he couldn't remember much about the incident and wasn't good with names. Washington said he'd need to pull his report to remember the details, but then declined to do so.
The private detective never connected up with star witness teacher Leonard, who'd transferred to Kashmere High. He talked with Ron Thomas, a counselor and substance-abuse officer at the school, who'd heard the "commotion," but said by the time he arrived, the two players were back on the field and Meyson was up in the stands. He told the investigator that Leonard said that Meyson had started it. "When I talked to the football boys, they said he should not have been up here."
He also talked to Assistant Principal Frodine, who told him that she "never saw the altercation or any punches being thrown." More importantly, he said, "I learned she had no personal knowledge of the incident and everything she said she knew was based on hearsay from what students and parents said."
In the end, all the documentation came to nothing. In a totally anticlimactic moment, after waiting for more than an hour while the judge went through her morning docket, Meyson's case was dismissed. Neither Officer Washington nor, in fact, anyone from HISD had shown up. It was over.
Some kids on a football team whose coach exhorts them to "win every game" and take out the opposing quarterback (however kindly that could possibly be interpreted) were wound up tighter than a drum one night. Meyson Garcia, newcomer to the school, stumbled into a hornet's nest. Whatever he said that night remains clouded by faulty memories and confusion. As his lawyer puts it, though, whatever it was did not merit getting beat up in the stands.
In an earlier time, something like this would have happened without the involvement of police or courts — which certainly must be tired of all the Class C tickets coming their way out of our schools. But we live in the time we're dealt.
Was there a rush to judgment that night? Maybe so. Is it a normal human condition to side with people you already know? Yes, especially at a school where football is so important and one of the brothers has been written up in a newspaper as one of the season's expected stars. Do people sometimes want to be part of something and "see" something they really haven't? You bet. Happens all the time. Is Meyson Garcia a saint? No, although he's got a good start on the ordeals necessary to qualify for sainthood.
Back in September, Meyson Garcia could have pleaded guilty and paid the $200 fine. Instead, his father spent close to $5,000 on attorney and private investigator's fees. They thought it was important to clear his name.
Meyson is in the midst of the second semester of his junior year at St. Thomas. He's making his grades, still plans to study the law in college. And in the spring he went out for sports again. Rugby.
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