On the Case

American television has become a fetid waste pit of banality, but we have the solution.

The solution involves a spin-off of an existing show, but if you can't be derivative, you have no business pretending to be a TV exec.

Our proposal: Law & Order: Zero Tolerance Unit. And we have our first episode -- based on true events!

On the mean streets of The Woodlands, where teens in Lincoln Navigators prowl menacingly past suspiciously manicured lawns, trouble is always present.

Big trouble. Like the day in February when Max Briese went bad.

Briese, a student at Branch Crossing Junior High, learned the hard lessons that will be a weekly feature on Law & Order: ZTU. He took a television remote control from one classroom and sneaked it into another. As the teacher tried nobly to impart knowledge, Briese surreptitiously turned the teacher's TV on and off (in middle school terms, this is humor on a par with Vonnegut, or Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad).

Somehow the school's assistant principal showed up during the ensuing "Who's doing that?" brouhaha. And that's how things ended up in court.

Briese was charged with "disruption of class," an offense under the state's Education Code that can carry a fine of $500.

Briese's father, Chuck, says his kid was also threatened with a theft charge. He adds that the assistant principal is "a very overzealous kind of guy."

Overzealous? That's the motto of the ZTU squad. And so Montgomery County prosecutor Tracy Pullan put her three years of UH Law School to glorious use by preparing the case. (The pilot episode will feature a gauzy flashback of Pullan ignoring a bitchin' party in order to bone up on the Education Code's lengthy section on "Jokes About Uranus.") But alas, the teacher refused to testify.

Witness tampering! Witness intimidation!

Well, maybe not. "My understanding is she has several small children and she no longer is a teacher and just couldn't get away…from her kids," Pullan says. The case, pending before a justice of the peace, was dropped September 13. "The assistant principal wasn't too happy about this," Pullan says.

No kidding -- Max Briese is now free to terrorize classroom TVs everywhere. (School officials aren't commenting.)

Anyway, we're sure it will make riveting television. Our sweeps month special will feature an innocent substitute teacher traumatized by the fact that she apparently has students named Mike Hunt and Heywood Jablome.

Eat and Run

There's an old saying about legendary football coaches: You don't want to be the guy who replaces (for example) Bear Bryant. You want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaced Bear Bryant.

Apparently that saying doesn't hold for Houston Chronicle food editors. The paper is looking to replace the person who replaced the person who replaced the person who replaced the legend.

Ann Criswell ruled the Chron food section for 34 years before retiring in late 2000. Since then the paper's gone through section editors like Olive Garden goes through busboys.

John DeMers lasted 18 months; Jane P. Marshall endured about half that long, and Janice Schindeler even less.

Schindeler wouldn't comment on her recent firing, but rumors are that she grew exasperated making up for an understaffed section and her bosses grew exasperated with her exasperation.

And so, for the fourth time in four years, the Chron begins a search for a food editor. Whoever they pick probably shouldn't make long-term plans.

Shooting Star

If you're going to get shot by an ex-girlfriend, you should at least get some money out of the deal. Not to mention get yourself portrayed on TV by the dashing Esai Morales of NYPD Blue fame.

Gary Taylor, a reporter for the industry publication Oilgram News, finds himself in just that position. Shot 24 years ago by attorney Catherine Mehaffey Shelton (a.k.a. the Black Widow -- some ex-lovers or former associates have been wounded or died violently; she says she's had nothing to do with that), Taylor is now sitting back and waiting for Heartless, a CBS movie starring Melanie Griffith.

The Hollywood Reporter says that Morales will play "an ambitious newspaper reporter who goes undercover to get the story" on a woman based on Shelton, a plot that comports with reality about as well as a Bush administration WMD estimate.

Taylor doesn't mind, though. He got paid by the producers for his "life rights," or the chance to tell his story. "My case is the only one where there's a conviction, so I guess they thought they needed it," he says.

It's not the first time he's made money off the incident. "In 1990 I got $5,000 for a movie that was never made," he says. "The money gets a lot bigger" when a movie "actually goes into production."

How much? He won't say. "It's not enough to retire on, but it's enough to buy some furniture and take a trip," he says.

Through the years he's chatted about the case with Oprah, Regis, Sally Jessy Raphael and the crew at 48 Hours. Getting shot is a gift that keeps giving.

"I figure, hey, I ought to get something out of it," he says.

Need-to-Know Basis

Picking a new superintendent for the Houston school district is an important job -- too important for mere mortals like district parents or residents.

Citing new rules, HISD is abandoning its own past practices -- and the usual methods used elsewhere in the nation -- and will not disclose the finalists to replace recently retired superintendent Kaye Stripling.

Announcing the finalists would only bring with it a lot of annoying public input, as reporters and citizens did their own background checks and then actually contacted school board members, who'd rather not be bothered, the officials leading the search didn't say.

Instead they said that "confidentiality enhances the applicant pool," which apparently is superintendent-search bureaucratese for "mind your own business."

Don Killough of the Texas Association of School Boards, which is running HISD's search, said a 1995 law allows the names of superintendent applicants to be exempt from Open Records Act requests.

The law indeed says that, but it also says the school board "must give public notice of the name or names of the finalists...at least 21 days before" a selection is made.

Even though Killough's group will be narrowing the field to five applicants in early November and further cutting it to three later that month, don't look for those names to become public.

Those survivors are definitely not "finalists" in the English sense of the word. The only "finalist" will be the person named November 17 as the proposed new superintendent -- who almost certainly will be interim Superintendent Abe Saavedra, rendering all this a bit moot.

"Even if it sounds like they're keeping information from the public, they have a right to do that," Killough told reporters September 24.

"If" it sounds that way? We don't see how there could be an "if" involved, but then again we don't have Killough and HISD's expert understanding of how the news media works.

"We ask that you work with us on explaining that process to the public," Killough told reporters. "It could turn into a circus if we're not careful with the media demanding names."

Glad to help, sir. And could we just add, right now, that whoever you pick is going to be a great administrator who only cares for the kids and the taxpayers? You're welcome.

Health Plan: Stay Healthy

Teachers and other workers in the Houston school district are degenerate gamblers, and the situation is getting worse every year.

They're not taking buses to Lake Charles or Vinton. Instead, they're dropping their health insurance.

Lower-income HISD workers, such as custodians and food-service employees, have been saying no to the district's health insurance plan even if they have no other coverage.

In the last year 1,712 district employees have opted out of coverage, a 347 percent increase from the year before. Overall, almost one-third of the district's 25,000 employees go without coverage.

It is, of course, a cost issue, says Orell Fitzsimmons, field director of the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union. Six years ago, bare-bones coverage was free; today it's $72 out of each biweekly paycheck. Standard family coverage can cost $223 a paycheck.

The school district had no comment, but Fitzsimmons says school board president Karla Cisneros told him the issue would be discussed when next year's budget comes up.

That may not seem like much, but it's better than what Fitzsimmons heard a few years ago from then-board member Laurie Bricker, during an AFL-CIO endorsement interview.

"If they don't want to pay for coverage, they can go to Ben Taub," he claims she said, referring to the city's emergency hospital.

Union reps were stunned at the time; now it seems their members are just taking Bricker up on her advice.

Hair Club for Men

Houston Texans quarterback David Carr has famously promised not to cut his hair until the team -- for the first time in its history -- wins two games in a row. That probably looked like a pretty good bet to the usually crew-cut Carr when he saw this year's schedule began with the woeful San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions (combined 2003 record: 9-23).

Alas, the Texans weren't quite up to the challenge, and now, even with the upset of the Chiefs, they have to tackle a tough schedule that just may have Carr facing some serious hair issues before long. Luckily, we have some suggestions (see photos above):

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