Learning How to Survive (at) CEP

At 5:53 p.m. the phone rings. Joseph Flores picks it up and puts it right back down. A recorded message says Joseph wasn't at school today. This is something his parents already know. "He flat refused to go," says his mother, Maria Purdy.

Playing with his miniature Doberman, Joseph looks up. "I refuse," he reiterates. "They're always jumping me, they're hitting me -- the teachers don't do nothing. They turn their back or they watch."

Joseph is a student at Community Education Partners, which has a $17.9 million annual contract with the Houston Independent School District to educate students who've gotten in trouble at school and need extra help. The alternative school program is promoted as a safe, structured and self-paced way to get at-risk kids back on track, while at the same time removing their disruptive behavior from their home schools. Given 180 days, it promises to advance students at least one grade level.

CEP's many supporters tout its two Houston campuses, Beechnut and Ferndale, as the answer to the inspired vision of U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige while he was HISD superintendent. According to school board member Larry Marshall, Paige emerged from years of trying to make public school alternative education work, with the realization that something else was needed. "He was coming out of denial. He said that Terrell School" -- the district's alternative program -- "was a miserable failure."

Marshall, who was an HISD administrator for several years before going on the school board, says he could have told Paige that after his own six-month stint at Terrell, but he never did. He just listened. Paige wasn't going to turn these kids out on the street, he was going to save them -- but with a new strategy.

"We have never had a handle in any school on how to deal with at-risk kids," Marshall asserts. "We never came up with a model that came close to CEP. We weren't smart enough. We needed lower enrollment." They also needed teachers who knew how to deal with alternative education kids, he says. In-school suspension programs often don't work, Marshall says. "All you do is find the biggest coach in the district to sit in there with the kids."

His arguments on behalf of CEP seem to come from the heart, particularly when Marshall mentions that he "lost a son due to this violence out there." His son had met all his course-work requirements but couldn't pass his exit exam in algebra. He was out on the street, hanging around with buddies who were doing drugs, when he took a ride he shouldn't have and was shot to death three years ago, Marshall says.

Marshall is also a paid consultant for CEP. He says it was his 35 years of experience with alternative schools that caused CEP to approach him for the job. He's being greatly rewarded for that experience now: CEP pays him $72,000 a year for four days of work each month ($1,500 a day).

Details of his financial arrangement with CEP surfaced during Marshall's February 6 deposition in a lawsuit by former HISD administrator Frank Watson. He accuses Marshall of trying to unethically influence HISD to do business with a health care provider that had also paid Marshall for consulting services.

In the deposition, Marshall says he discussed going to work for CEP with Paige. Since signing on, he has traveled to Dallas; Cleveland; Dayton, Ohio; Atlanta; New Orleans; Denver and Savannah on CEP's behalf. In three of those cities he attended the National Black Mayors Conference, pitching "CEP's model." At other times, he says, he met with superintendents offering them "technical assistance" and "strategies" to help them get their school trustees on board with CEP. In Dayton, he was part of CEP's presentation at a nationwide superintendents' conference. He has no notes, makes no reports in his CEP work.

In reply to a question about whether CEP is Marshall's only client currently, Marshall says: "Yes. Serving as president of the [school] board has been very expensive."

Marshall, who says he consulted with school board attorneys David Thompson and Kelly Frels before accepting the CEP offer, says he avoids conflicts of interest because he doesn't discuss or vote on CEP matters before the HISD board. Of course, by doing so he has surrendered any voice or leadership in this matter for the people who elected him -- and even the slightest watchdog role in making CEP accountable to HISD. He's made two CEP-paid trips to Washington, D.C., including to Paige's swearing-in. "I admire and respect the organization," he says. "I think they will begin to impact the country."

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, represents the teachers at the two CEP campuses in Houston and the one in Dallas. Proudly, she says that these are the only teachers in the state who are able to bargain their contract. She is also a fervid and frequent supporter of CEP, where her godson was enrolled until recently. She credits CEP with making him a more respectful and polite young man. He still, she sighs, does not want to do his homework. (CEP would be no help in this area, since there is no homework at CEP; students are not allowed to take books home.)

Fallon dismisses accounts of fighting at the school, saying, "What goes on here goes on in every school in the country." The kids are there "because of their disruptive, defiant behavior," she says. "They bring a lot of baggage with them. Sometimes in addition to struggling academically, they have a lot of anger, a lot of distrust. We just want to give them an opportunity."

She vehemently denies rumors that she is a consultant for CEP or is on its payroll. The reason she is present at CEP's campuses so often, she says, is because she's representing her membership, which includes all employees below management level, the noncertified as well as the certified teachers.

CEP did pay for her trip to Broward County, where she tried to help sell that Florida school district on the benefits of CEP. She says she was brought in at the request of Broward's superintendent, Frank Petruzielo, a former HISD superintendent with whom she had a cordial relationship. That was a onetime thing, she says, adding that she took a day off from her union job while engaged in CEP business.

She is an advocate of CEP, she says, not because she's getting any financial reward from it but because she believes it works for kids lost in a traditional school setting. In fact, her son, Jamie, an attorney, has represented members against CEP management.

Both Marshall and Fallon, in separate conversations, stress the feeling of safety that CEP students have. "Kids don't learn well when they don't feel safe," Marshall says.

Unfortunately, the CEP that Marshall and Fallon describe is worlds away from the one described by many students attending the alternative school. Whereas Marshall and Fallon (and CEP itself) portray a calm and enlightened environment offering kids hope for the future, students and their parents who complain about CEP relay tales of chaos, anarchy, physical and emotional punishment, and mind-numbing boredom.

Even acknowledging that most of these kids haven't prospered at any school -- and factoring in the usual "I hate school" philosophy of many teenagers as well as a propensity to exaggerate, the sheer number of similar accounts suggests strongly that something is amiss at CEP. The same stories are told over and over: teachers who can't teach, instructors swearing at students, frequent fights, low-level course work, students who nap throughout the day, broken computers, not to mention lost or "misplaced" records and completed assignments. And through it all, there is the question of whether these students are best served by having to sit out an entire school year, 180 days, away from their home schools no matter what the offense.

Either all the kids and parents that the Houston Press talked with for the past several weeks are lying, or some of the well-intentioned supporters don't know what's really going on inside CEP. Other CEP boosters know about the problems but see them as part and parcel of the community they serve and either avoid discussing them or make excuses.

Joseph has missed almost a month of school. He's never there more than three hours before he calls his mom and begs her to come get him. She gives in about twice a week, and when she picks him up he's covered in bruises and crying, she says. A CEP counselor referred Joseph to a psychiatrist at DePelchin Children's Center. The psychiatrist prescribed Risperdal to calm him down before he goes to sleep, so he won't lie awake worrying about fights the next day, and Celexa to take in the morning so he can stomach the idea of going to school. Even with the drugs, Joseph still cries every night. "Life just sucks because I'm there," he says.

On a recent Friday, Joseph called home and begged Maria to pick him up. She didn't, and an hour later when a kid started hitting him, Joseph hit back, and got handcuffed and ticketed for fighting. This was his second on-campus arrest since he came to CEP last September. His mother says he has no criminal history and didn't start either fight.

"This place is a playground for the ones who are strong and a confinement for the weak ones," says Joseph's father, Ramon Flores. "Once you get down in there you're prey. I'm fed up with this -- I want my son out."

Joseph says teachers grab him by the arms, push him against the wall and regularly swear at him using phrases like "Sit your ass down" or "I'm tired of this shit."

Joseph was sent to CEP because whenever he finished his class work at Sharpstown Middle School he got a pass to use the restroom and wandered the halls. (A Press review of HISD records showed Sharpstown refers more students to CEP than any other school in the district. As of May 16, it had referred 72 students there out of 1,992 for the year. First runner-up was Jackson Middle School, with 59). Joseph says the principal promised that he could return to Sharpstown once his grades improved. "We shook on it," Joseph says sadly. Joseph was failing science; now he has a 93 average. He met with Sharpstown administrators three times, and they told him he has to finish his 180-day sentence.

There are no private school options for Joseph's family, because both his parents are unemployed and on disability.

Three sets of parents with a few more choices -- Rayette and Kirkland Fulk, Brenda and Roy Jones and Rufus Brown -- filed suit on May 15 against HISD. (CEP has been dropped from the suit.) They say that the 180-day provision in the HISD contract violates HISD's code of student conduct as well as Chapter 37.009 of the Texas Education Code, which calls for a review of the student's progress at least by the time 120 days have passed. They are not seeking compensatory or punitive damages, just what they see is their right to due process and a change in the way HISD does business.

The Press asked both acting Superintendent Kaye Stripling and Larry Marshall for interviews. Stripling sent word through the district's media relations office that she didn't have time because she had back-to-back meetings and preferred that Marshall handle any Press questions about CEP. Asked again and told the Press would wait more than a week for "five to ten minutes' time including nights, early mornings and weekends" with the superintendent, Heather Browne, the new head of public relations for HISD, said Stripling couldn't comment because of the litigation.

Yet Stripling had no problem with someone else representing the district -- someone who works for CEP.

HISD's contract calls for it to pay for 2,000 students to go to CEP, whether they're there or not. (It can enroll as many as 2,500 for the same price.) The Texas House's Public Education Committee didn't think too much of this; chairman Paul Sadler, a Democrat from Henderson, called it a quota system.

Representative Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat, has served on the state's public education committee for five years and says the changes the legislature made in the education code were never intended to be applied so rigidly as in the HISD-CEP contract.

"The Safe School Act was designed to give the teacher the right to remove a disruptive student from a class," Hochberg says. "I'm concerned about safety in the schools. I'm also concerned that people use common sense.

"This whole section of alternative education is probably the most difficult legislation to write," he says. "You don't want to see disruptive kids back in the classroom. But where do you build the due process in without undermining the teachers?" He doesn't like what he calls the "nonquota quota" of the 180-day minimum term at CEP. "I think that's as bad as a policy that would go too far in the other direction."

(Several students and their parents said the sentence can be even longer if the home school won't accept them back. And one, whose term was up in October, says he was told he couldn't transfer back at that time; he couldn't return until after the winter break.

According to HISD's Browne, this would violate district policy. "Once a student has completed his/her term at CEP, the home school is required to take the student back," she says. "There is no reason a school should refuse to take a student back.")

Yet even CEP head Randle Richardson confirms the students' accounts, agreeing that some HISD schools refuse to accept kids back from CEP. He says this occurs with less than 1 percent of the students at CEP.

"If the real selling point of CEP is that they offer individualized instruction, then that should apply to [students'] progress as well, and would directly impact the length of placement," Hochberg says.

Representative Dora Olivo, a Rosenberg Democrat and former schoolteacher, was among the small group of legislators who met with HISD school board members Jeff Shadwick and Laurie Bricker, both strong proponents of CEP, and attorney David Thompson this month to discuss CEP and other matters. This meeting came as a follow-up to an earlier appearance before the public education committee by a small group of Houston parents fighting their children's continued CEP placement. Olivo termed the follow-up meeting "disappointing."

She says she is very concerned about CEP and that far too many children are being sent there at the home school's discretion and not for any reason demanded by law. "Every day a student is in school is important. You're building a foundation every day. Sometimes I wonder, 'What do students think about us when we put them in a situation like this?' "

As it turns out, CEP's contracts are not all alike -- even in Texas. For instance, Fort Bend ISD sent 42 students to CEP in the first year of its contract, but its district officials say there is no quota, and the kids don't have to stay 180 days. They just go for however long they were expelled. "Whatever the expulsion order says," states Fort Bend area superintendent Gary Crowell. (This is another point of discrepancy: CEP's Richardson says, "All CEP contracts guarantee a minimum enrollment.") Despite CEP's literature, which frequently says that sending a student for anything less than a full school year is a recipe for disaster, Crowell pronounces himself pleased with CEP on the shorter term. "We've had a very good year with them," he says.

Actually, the first contract CEP had in the Houston area was with the Harris County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program. Dave Wingard contracted with CEP on behalf of the county and was initially enthusiastic, but later saw numerous problems with the program. He says CEP never provided the services it should have by contract.

Wingard, who is no longer with the county, says CEP dumped JJAEP after it got the $17.9 million HISD contract. "They made it clear the county was an albatross." He says the same thing happened to the JJAEP program in Dallas -- dumped after the Dallas ISD signed on with CEP. The juvenile justice contracts were smaller, less lucrative and without quotas -- but with the kids who were the hardest to handle.

In a March 7 letter to Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, Richardson says that he is ending their five-year relationship. "CEP has spent $12.9 million and received revenues of $9.1 million," he writes, and the 115 students enrolled at CEP via the JJAEP program is down from a high of 700 in the '96-'97 school year. He also cites "concerns of ISD parents who do not want their children assigned to the same campus as students adjudicated for felony offenses."

In a similar letter to Dallas one year earlier, Richardson says, "CEP has suffered $4.1 million in losses" and by the end of the contract would lose more than $5 million serving the JJAEP program there.

Dallas ISD doesn't have the money to pay its teachers' insurance, yet it has a five-year, $50 million deal with CEP. Last fall there were fewer than 300 students enrolled at the Dallas CEP. District trustees renegotiated the contract, lowering the enrollment from 1,500 to 1,400, expanded eligibility to middle schools and doubled the stay at CEP from 90 to 180 days. Principals were required to send students after their fourth on-campus offense such as assault or theft. Still, in January there were only 347 students, although CEP says there are now 800 enrolled.

The new superintendent, Mike Moses, told The Dallas Morning News on January 29 that "there are obvious concerns" about the contract, and ordered an audit from the comptroller's office, which will be available in early June.

"It's a bad contract that we entered into," says Dallas school board member Hollis Brashear. "They've been feeling their way through this, making changes and making improvements. It's been a very flat learning curve on the part of CEP to perform the way they indicated they could. Needless to say, I have not been impressed with the program….It's clear that the cost per student is exorbitantly high, and obviously if we continue with them we'll have to have some serious modifications of the contract."

The contract is far more favorable to CEP than to the district or to the students themselves, says board member Lois Parrott. "It's almost like a voucher system, but it's not called that, so no one recognizes it. I call it camouflage," Parrott says.

"They come in like gangbusters in our school districts and get a couple board members hyped up -- who knows behind the scenes what they offer -- and then give you a big PR spiel and say your kids' test scores are going to go up because the kids in the alternative school won't be part of your school. You have to be very smart to see through the glitter that they bring and the PR and the fancy tape and the name-dropping." In Houston, CEP test scores are attached to the student's home school.

Test scores are the new issue in Pasadena's CEP, which has 252 students enrolled. Children are sent there for 180 days, although they can be released after a 120-day review -- only if the home school agrees to take them back. There were CEP problems this year with administration of the TAAS. "Some of the tests were not recorded properly," says district spokesperson Kirk Lewis. "So it created some paperwork issues for us, getting it all cleaned up to make sure we had the right students with the right tests, matching them up and getting them accounted for."

Lewis says that in some CEP cases, the wrong test was given to the wrong child. There were instances of children taking the test for the wrong grade level, and some tests were "temporarily misplaced." "When we went to pick them up, they were not with our stack, and we had to search to find them," Lewis says. Two tests are still missing; since PISD received some HISD tests, Lewis thinks his students' exams were sent to the wrong district.

Despite the fact that last year the Press reported that PISD had issues with report cards and ungraded exams (see "Learning Curve," by Wendy Grossman, October 5), that district still plans to renew the yearly contract. But because of past errors, Pasadena monitored CEP more closely this year, Lewis says. "We've just been watching them," he says.

Gordon Anderson is the top CEP representative in Houston, a man with an enthusiastic, earnest manner and a crippling handshake. His business card doesn't carry a title, but he's the person everyone directs the news media to when CEP questions arise. His oft-stated declarations of concern, love and hope for students at CEP are matched in frequency by his "We could be better" refrains when more troubling subjects are introduced. He sees far more good than bad at CEP, though, citing statistics showing academic improvement and an impressive number of students who ask to stay at CEP beyond their mandated term.

On May 14 a requested interview with new acting principal Ken Thomas and a tour of the CEP Beechnut facility turn into a meeting with a small group of people including Anderson and Gayle Fallon. But Thomas, who was brought in abruptly from Nashville to replace principal Phillipa Young, is nowhere in sight. Anderson explains Thomas's absence by saying, "He's being principal. It's my assignment to visit with you."

Anderson says Young was moved out suddenly because CEP needed a community liaison. "She's very excited," he says. "There was a fresh enthusiasm in her voice. It was wonderful to see her out there." Asked why this was done right before the end of the school year, Anderson concedes, "This was prompted, to a fair degree, because of the criticism that the schools have been receiving." Thomas, normally assigned to operations and special projects in Nashville, will be replaced next fall by Ed LaSage, an assistant principal at Lanier Middle School who Anderson says is firm but kind.

Staff turnover remains a major problem at Houston's CEP. There have been several principals in the few years the program has been in operation here. Teachers come and go at an even higher rate.

All the teachers have degrees, but few are certified. Anderson says that certification is "a wonderful thing," but if someone has the heart to work with these kids then they don't necessarily need to be certified. At the same time he readily agrees that the school lacks teachers who are able to answer higher-level questions in some subjects. "Math, that's an area we haven't figured out yet."

In response to subsequent Press questions, Richardson says CEP will be adding a staff recruiter to hire upper-level math and science teachers. Current staff will receive additional training in math and science, Anderson says. Better computer programs are being considered. And CEP is considering requiring all new hires to either enter an alternative certification plan or obtain temporary certification -- if this doesn't violate provisions of the union contact, Richardson says.

Anderson says teacher turnover is too high. Fallon says the pay "is not there" and that it's going to have to come up. The average salary of $29,000 is lower than what HISD teachers are paid, but she says there are better benefits.

Anderson also volunteered that original staff selection wasn't rigorous enough and CEP's new teacher training was inadequate.

The relationship of teachers to students at CEP is shaky, by most student/parent accounts. CEP students often say teachers shove and yell at them. Fallon discounts this, saying this is just part of "a new game" widespread throughout HISD in which students know that by making false accusations about teachers they can get them removed. Anderson says that sometimes a teacher will insert himself between two fighting students and end up touching one. Fallon agrees. "Ultimately, you stop a fight physically. When I taught, I used to take the smallest one and throw 'em somewhere," she says. "If a teacher manhandles a kid it's an automatic termination. We haven't had one fired."

Richardson agrees. He says CPS and HPD have yet to confirm any such allegations of student abuse, which are taken seriously by CEP.

Richardson also discounts reports of fighting among students and says no allegations have been substantiated about teachers standing by during student fights.

CEP tries to eliminate fights among students by keeping the kids out of hallways and bathrooms and by eliminating cafeterias. Students eat lunch in their rooms. "We tried to build in predictability, continuity and stability," Anderson says. "It's kind of like an old-fashioned one-room school."

Out of every 100 kids in HISD, CEP takes two students, Anderson says, and of these, 10 percent are placed in special ed. Anderson says CEP is not a warehouse and that he cares about all the students there. "They're still children on the inside, and I'm not gonna let them get pushed out on the street."

Despite the regimentation, kids at CEP can still get in trouble and be sent to in-school suspension or expelled. Anderson says they follow up on truancy very strongly because CEP doesn't get paid if the kids aren't there. (Richardson says there is a financial penalty if CEP doesn't maintain 80 percent attendance.) As a result, attendance at CEP is "10 to 15 percent higher than at their home school," Anderson says.

But on another morning prior to this date -- as a Press writer parked her butt in a potted plant out in the CEP parking lot, in a very long and unsuccessful wait to get inside -- kids straggled in throughout the morning. Asked about this, Anderson sighs, saying: "Some do drift in, and we try to reach the parents. These kids have had bad experiences in school for whatever reason. I think we're making a good, energetic effort to get them here.

"Do some of them straggle in? Yes. Do we feel confident we're doing everything we can? No." Fallon points out that some of the kids coming in late were as a result of their parents being called to bring in their kids.

Much of CEP's literature promotes its self-paced policy of putting students in front of computers for most of the day. They are both taught and tested by these computers, which, company CEO Richardson has proudly said, cannot be accused of falsifying scores. But on this day in May, Anderson says he'd like to see CEP become less computer-driven, instead offering more direct interaction with teachers.

The subsequent tour shows off empty halls with murals of happy students wearing caps and gowns. Beth Bircher, a former teacher in the local public schools, is the head of orientation. On arrival, she says, she tells students it doesn't matter what they did in the past, this is the place they can get back on track. She wants to see students working, nice and quiet. There are incentives for good behavior: games every other week, pizza, inclusion in the honors group (based on behavior, not grades).

Carolyn Taylor runs the Ninth Grade Initiative program at CEP, another delegation of responsibilities from HISD. The district won't know till sometime this summer whether the program designed to help at-risk ninth-graders -- it is funded by the Texas Education Agency and in operation at ten campuses -- will be renewed for next year.

Possessed of a calm, friendly, quietly forceful manner, Taylor says education is her second career. Previously, she spent 22 years in law enforcement as a deputy sheriff in Franklin County in Columbus, Missouri. She focuses on social skills as well as academics. And, as she puts it, students "know Ms. Taylor doesn't play."

In the room labeled Girls In School Suspension, a male student sleeps at his desk throughout the time the Press reporters spend in his class (the room's teacher calls him "our exception"). Anderson kneels down next to an 11-year-old boy working at the far end of the room. He brings the boy over to the reporters, hugs him and says, "This is what this is all about." The boy makes a break for freedom. "You're the press? I want to talk to you. It's terrible what they do to children here," he says. Anderson pats him on the head and smiles -- weakly.

Buddy Streit was the head of all public education and senior vice president for development of the Brown Schools, a competitor of CEP's. With a background in juvenile justice and education, Streit says he spent four years with the Brown Schools, including their sites in Houston and Dallas, and got them to be more involved with at-risk kids in education.

He didn't know much about CEP until several CEP employees started asking him for jobs. Richardson accused him of stealing his teachers.

"I asked Randle Richardson if he was aware of what his people were saying," Streit says. Streit recounted what he'd been told, that false test scores were being recorded. Streit says Richardson told him he didn't give much credence to those allegations. Streit told Richardson he thought he ought to sit in on some exit interviews with his own people, and spend some time in his own schools.

"I'm trying to tell him as nicely as I can, 'You got a shitty company. This many people aren't making it up.' "

Streit left the Brown Schools last year and is starting his own alternative education company out of Tallahassee. There should be no problem with private companies offering services for at-risk kids "so long as the system has in place accountability mechanisms," he says. "You've got to hold all these parties to high standards and if there are problems, let's not pretend they are not there."

There is an argument to be made that instead of dealing with kids who have emotional problems -- kids whose parents have died or who have been diagnosed with depression or other mental illnesses that lead to bad behavior -- HISD ships them off to CEP.

Marshall McCardell has a long history of seeking counseling and acting out in school. He was sent to CEP for disrupting class at Clifton Middle School and has been there since last October. He is 11 years old.

On a recent Monday, the school nurse contacted Marshall's grandmother, saying Marshall had hit his head and he had a bad headache and someone needed to come pick him up. Marshall's grandmother called her daughter, Lynette Jackson, at work, and Lynette immediately called the school and headed over. "By the time I got there he had a big knot on his head and his eyes were sunken back in his head," she says.

What led to Marshall getting hurt remains a mystery.

"At first I was playing around. The teacher told me to do some work. When she left the classroom I went to sleep," Marshall says. When he woke up, he was lying on the floor of his classroom with a knot on his head.

From there accounts diverge. Either Marshall just fell to the floor from his sleeping position at his desk and clunked his head or -- as other students have told Marshall -- another student grabbed Marshall's head while he was sleeping and gave it a yank, causing him to fall to the floor. The teacher doesn't know because she was outside in the hall talking to another teacher, Marshall says.

Dizzy and disoriented, Marshall tried to rise and fell again. He decided to go back to sleep, but another student knew enough to say this was not safe. Marshall's friend told a teacher that Marshall needed to go to the nurse, but the teacher denied that request.

Finally the classroom teacher returned and she sent Marshall to the clinic. Lynette took her son to the emergency room at Spring Branch Memorial Hospital, where they ran a CAT scan and told her he had suffered a mild concussion, she says. Lynette is still trying to get answers from the school about exactly how this could have happened, especially in an environment that prides itself on constant supervision.

Lynette has few good words for CEP, describing it as a place that makes a lot of promises about what it's going to do for children and delivers on few of them.

The day after his fall, in an appointment that had been set long before, Marshall went for an evaluation with the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. This examination was not set up by HISD or CEP, but instead by Justice of the Peace George Risner of Pasadena. Risner handles many children who get in trouble in Harris County, which means he sees a lot of CEP students and their parents.

MHMRA determined that Marshall has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed Concerta to increase his attention and improve his behavior. His mother says it seems to be working. Lynette is very grateful to MHMRA and especially Risner for recommending the exam. She is equally angry that HISD, in all its years of counseling and supposedly helping her son, never thought of this.

"Because of the symptoms that he has, he can't sit still. Maybe he would never have had to be here if he'd been tested earlier," she says. "I have to wonder what the counselors are doing. Just because a student has one little problem, they don't take the time to figure out what the problem is. They're being paid to send these kids off."

Risner laughs ruefully in his office when told of Lynette Jackson's feelings.

"You mean why is some goofy judge in Pasadena doing this instead of the school?"

He doesn't hesitate to affix blame. "The bottom line is [the schools are] not doing their job. They don't want to know what the problem is. If they find out, then they have to provide services."

Risner thinks CEP needs to improve. He became frustrated with it at one point and refused to work with it for a while. He's concerned that some of HISD's more overcrowded schools may be sending students to CEP to relieve that problem. He also believes Harris County has provided most of the auxiliary services like counseling at CEP, and "CEP would just suck off of it." He says CEP didn't fulfill its share of the bargain with the county for the children in its juvenile justice education program. That relationship ends May 31; the county has already put the program out for bids, and CEP has plans for the additional room the change will free up.

Dr. Regina Hicks is deputy director of child and adolescent services for MHMRA. It has been providing clinical services at CEP and will continue that after the county withdraws. (CEP is trying to secure federal funding for other counseling programs.) MHMRA does on-site assessments as well as group and individual therapy. Sessions are paid for by Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program or on a sliding fee scale for those without other coverage.

"We're trying to reach the kids as early as possible," Hicks says. "Clearly what we are trying to do is to keep kids from penetrating deeper into the system and from going into the JJAEP program." Kids who have emotional difficulties, Hicks says, "are not going to be able to get a good education."

So with its heart and mission in the right place, MHMRA should be able to provide a valuable service to the kids at CEP, but takers have been few, Hicks says. Parents are reluctant to come in for the required family counseling sessions, which take place when school is in session but also when most adults work. The stigma of mental health counseling deters parents and students alike, she says.

"Our services are on a voluntary basis. We can't make you use them. A lot of families don't avail themselves of mental health services until someone has one foot in the hospital."

In the four years that Jennifer Frisman has worked in support services for CEP at Beechnut, there have been "more than five attempted suicides" by its students, she says.

Asked about the need for counselors, CEP's Anderson says: "The best counselors are good teachers, and the best counseling is the interaction between teachers and students."

I'm a student at JJAEP. I've been sent there for refusing to do work and cussing at teachers. I've only been at this school for a short time, about a month, and I've already seen many incidents where I feel the teachers are violating our rights. I know it's an alternative school and they aren't supposed to be like regular school but some things the staff does is out of hand.

I've seen many kids get manhandled by staff often leaving marks, bruises and deep scratches. I've been cussed at for minor things like talking without permission.

The other day a student went to school under the influence of approximately 10 … Xanax pills and was stumbling around (the) classroom and falling asleep and the teacher did nothing even after being told by other students what he was on. The only thing they did was write him up for sleeping until he had a bowel movement on the restroom floor. And the only thing they did was make him clean it up and the teacher (an ex-cop) looked at it as a joke and let him sleep the rest of the day.

Nurse (does nothing at all)

Abusive language: cussing at us when we get in minor trouble

We can't ever use a phone to get a hold of a parent (even when throwing up or sick)

The teachers (and some other lady) call us little girls for no reason.

…gave us about 5 minutes at the most to eat and when someone burped, everyone had to throw their food away and go to class.

The unorganization of the whole school. EX: giving me subjects I already passed. Not knowing what subjects I need. Not knowing how to help or do the work I need help on or sometimes I'll figure out the answer and the teacher won't have any idea.

A kid got punched by a staff member for not handing her his sweater.

A student got large scratches on (his) neck put there intentionally by (a) staff member

Teachers are telling us to "shut the fuck up" constantly. -- Letter from a CEP student to Judge George Risner

By today, school is out this year in Texas, and CEP operates for only two weeks during the summer. Different HISD and CEP officials talk about adjusting the CEP program by next fall. They speak of doing away with the automatic 180 days or redesigning the curriculum a bit or bringing in more teachers for more interpersonal contact.

None of the parents suing HISD dispute the placement of their children at CEP. They are objecting to the 180 days, which is not outlined in the student code of conduct. "The average referral in Texas is 26 days. This 180-day referral is way out of line," says their attorney, Les Cassidy, a native Houstonian now practicing law in Corpus Christi. "The contractual relationship between CEP and HISD is taking priority over the needs of individual students," Cassidy says.

As for the types of services that CEP is providing, Cassidy says the Texas Education Code has a requirement that funding for alternative education programs should be similar to regular classes. "HISD may be budgeting the same amount, but you don't know how much is pulled out in profit and how much is actually going to the students at CEP."

And, Cassidy asks, "How is it that you can ever make a private corporation accountable for public funds?" Cassidy, who was president of the Corpus Christi branch of the American Civil Liberties Union for two years, says he is opposed to school vouchers in general, and "I think that CEP is the worst of what vouchers could become."

School board member Laurie Bricker is a strong supporter of CEP but believes that the 180-day minimum sentence may change. "The punishment should fit the crime." She says that even Gayle Fallon would agree that opt-out possibilities should be explored for students sent to CEP for lesser offenses or needs. "…If you meet certain criteria for attendance and academic performance and discipline, perhaps the days can be shortened.

It seems likely this will happen. Richardson now says CEP has proposed a change in accordance with state code. Any student on grade level who shows behavioral improvement would get a review for a return to his home campus before 180 days.

Bricker would also like to see an LEP (limited English proficiency) program, as well as advanced placement and honors courses.

Another change Bricker wants is a more structured special ed component, meaning she wants to make sure there's appropriate evaluation and "psychoeducational diagnostic tests" to make sure that placement is correct.

All this sounds good and hopeful, just like the message Brenda Jones got a few weeks ago when she was told her son would be part of a pilot project for more advanced students at CEP. A week later the new acting school principal at Beechnut told her CEP wouldn't have the resources for that this year, maybe next. A week later, in a meeting with the Press, Gordon Anderson said there was no need for a pilot project, that all their material was already on grade level and perfectly suitable for any and all CEP students.

Representative Hochberg makes a crucial distinction about CEP. "It is not a juvenile justice facility. If there are students there causing harm to other students, they should be in the JJAEP, not there. If there are staff members causing harm, they should be out."

Joyce Deion, mother of a son at CEP and a frequent protesting buddy of Brenda Jones's, says HISD's arrangement with CEP is "good intentions gone bad." She does see some hope ahead.

"They're not gonna be the same anymore. They're gonna change. They're either gonna get better at hiding their mistakes or make some changes. They're under the microscope."

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