No. of Recommendations: 0
Can you post an excerpt from the article? I'm lazy this morning and don't feel like registering at the site.

Sure, here's an excerpt. It's lengthy, but only a fraction of the original:

Student's Future on a Knife's Edge

HURST, Texas -- No big deal. That's what 16-year-old Taylor Hess thought, watching the assistant principal walk into his fourth-period class.

For Taylor, life was good, couldn't be better. He was an honors student. He was a star on the varsity swim team. That morning, he'd risen at 5:30 for practice. It was agonizing, diving into the school pool before sunrise, but Taylor liked getting something done early. He also liked the individuality of his sport, how in swimming you can only blame yourself.

The assistant principal, he now realized, was looking at him. In fact, Nathaniel Hearne was pointing at him. "Get your car keys," Hearne said. "Come with me."

Taylor still thought, no big deal. Maybe he'd left his headlights on. Maybe he'd parked where he shouldn't.

"A knife has been spotted in your pickup," Hearne said.

He'd gone camping with friends on Saturday, Taylor told him. Maybe someone left a machete in the truck.

"OK," Hearne said. "We'll find out."

In the parking lot, beside the 1993 cranberry red Ford Ranger he'd worked all summer to buy, Taylor saw Alan Goss, the Hurst city policeman assigned full time to L.D. Bell High. He also saw two private security officers holding a pair of dogs trained to find drugs and weapons.

Taylor looked at the bed of his pickup. It wasn't a machete after all, but an unserrated bread knife with a round point. A long bread knife, a good 10 inches long, lying right out in the open.

Now it clicked. That's my grandma's kitchen knife, Taylor explained. She had a stroke, we had to move her to assisted living, put her stuff in our garage. Last night we took it all to Goodwill. This must have fallen out of a box. I'll lock it up in the cab. Or you can keep it. Or you can call my parents to come get it.

The others just kept staring at the knife. Taylor thought they looked confused, like they didn't know what to do.

"Is it sharp?" Hearne finally asked.

Officer Goss ran his finger along the blade. "It's fairly sharp in a couple of spots."

Hearne slipped the knife inside his sport coat. Taylor walked with him back to class, wondering what his punishment might be. Saturday detention hall, maybe. He'd never pulled D hall before, never been in any trouble.

"Get your stuff and come to my office," Hearne said. "I've got to warn you, Taylor, this is a pretty serious thing."

Beginnings at Columbine

The Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District, about 12 miles west of Dallas, resembles so many others that have fashioned zero-tolerance polices to combat mounting fears of campus violence. For most districts, it began in 1994 with the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, which required all schools receiving federal aid to expel students who bring firearms to campus. Many states and school boards, appalled by the shootings that culminated in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, adopted policies even wider and tougher than the federal law. Everything from paper guns to nail files became weapons, everything from second-grade kisses to Tylenol tablets cause for expulsion. In countless rule books, "shall" and "must" replaced administrative discretion.

There'd been crazy situations ever since: Eighth-graders arrested for bringing "purple cocaine"--grape Kool-Aid--in lunch boxes; a sixth-grader suspended for bringing a toy ax as part of his Halloween fireman costume; a boy expelled for having a "hit list" that turned out to be his birthday party guests. Pundits clucked and civil rights lawyers protested, but for the most part, parents liked the changes, in fact campaigned for them. They wanted more rules, stricter rules. They also wanted consistency. They wanted students treated equally.

Jim Short, the principal of L.D. Bell High, understood all this as he sat at his desk on Monday afternoon, Feb. 25. Just minutes before, they'd found Taylor Hess' knife. Short's heart told him to ignore the matter. He knew Taylor well, thought him a great kid, a terrific young man. He believed the boy's story, he understood what had happened. He didn't believe Taylor had done anything wrong. Yet as principal, Short didn't think he could turn a blind eye.

Before him he had the Texas Education Code's Chapter 37 and his own school district's student code of conduct. They both told him the same thing: He had no latitude. There it was in the state code: A student shall be expelled ... if the student on school property...possesses an illegal knife. There it was in the district code: Student will be expelled for a full calendar year....

Nothing got people's attention more quickly than weapons on campus. Short appreciated this. He was 50 years old. For 26 years, he'd worked in the Abilene schools, the last 15 as a principal, before coming to L.D. Bell this year. He knew schools could be dangerous places. An Abilene teacher had been shot on campus. Kids were good generally, but some just didn't care. If Short ignored an infraction, it could blow up in his face. If he ignored Taylor Hess' knife, people would hear about it. Then he'd be assailed for paying no heed to a big carving knife. He had to follow the rules.

Still--Short had a sick feeling. He kept asking himself, what did he expect Taylor to have done differently?

At 2 p.m. that day, Short met with five assistant principals and the Hurst police officer, Alan Goss. They traded opinions without reaching a consensus. Most, even while hoping Taylor might win a later appeal, thought the state and district codes mandated expulsion.

We don't make the laws, the way Officer Goss saw it. Their hands were tied. If he were working as a street cop, if he had pulled Taylor over and seen an illegal knife in his pickup, Goss had discretion on whether even to write a report. He'd probably let him go with a warning. But he couldn't do that on school grounds. Not under the district's zero-tolerance policy.

Short found himself sounding the most liberal. Yet he saw his colleagues' viewpoints. It seemed to him they were honorable people with different opinions. Honorable people who all left the meeting with long faces.

More voices soon chimed in. The Texas Education Agency advised that the district had to proceed against Taylor. A county prosecuting attorney said yes, this was a case he'd accept, this was a violation of the penal code.

That made a difference. Officer Goss had been expecting the prosecuting attorney to say no, don't bring it to me. Expecting--and hoping.

At 2:40 p.m., Taylor Hess, summoned from his 11th-grade advanced-placement chemistry class, stepped into the principal's office. This will all blow over, he'd been telling himself. If no one else knows, they can let it pass. He didn't feel guilty or anxious, the way you did when you knew you'd messed up. Besides, he had a history with this principal. Jim Short had been supportive of the swim team. He'd sat around with them, talking to Taylor, congratulating him for being regional backstroke champ. Short knew him, knew what kind of kid he was.

A non-event. That's what all this was, Taylor figured. A non-event.

He explained again, telling Short about his grandma's stroke, packing up her stuff, driving to Goodwill. Short appeared to believe him but still looked mighty serious. When Taylor stopped talking, Short said, "Taylor, are you aware this calls for mandatory expulsion?"

[...] deleted the whole middle section, which is about 75% of the article and well worth reading -- it doesn't take that long to register at the L.A. Times site. The gist is that they actually expelled the kid. The parents tried reasoning with the principal, to no avail. The parents hired an attorney, who wisely went to the media with the situation. The resulting outcry finally forced the school district to back down. Here's how it ends...

Finding a Way to Bend

In the end, it all came down to what had been lacking, to what everyone said the law didn't allow: personal judgment.

The federal Gun-Free Schools Act had always included a clause specifying that state laws "shall" allow school superintendents to modify expulsion requirements. The Texas Education Agency, in a letter to district administrators, had made clear that the term of expulsions "may be reduced from the statutory one year." Yet it was the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district's own code that governed in the Hess case--and like many others across the country, the HEB district had handcuffed itself by mandating inflexible one-year expulsions.

Now, one day before the Hesses' appeal, Gene Buinger decided to remove the self-imposed handcuffs. He'd simply waive district policy; he'd rescind the expulsion. Following a conversation with the Texas Education Agency's school safety division, he thought he could do that, especially since the police had never filed a complaint. And if he could do that, why even hold an appeal hearing?

When the Hesses arrived at his office on Friday morning, Buinger began to explain his plan. Just then, however, an assistant came in carrying a newly arrived fax from the state agency's legal department. No, the fax advised, Buinger couldn't rescind the expulsion. He could only reduce the expulsion to time served.

Buinger wasn't sure whether the Hesses would buy this. He shared with them the conflicting advice he'd received. This does call for expulsion, he said, but we can adjust the amount of time. Is that OK with you?

Robert Hess had a typed list of conditions. "Yes," he said. "If we can agree on these."

The Hesses wanted Taylor readmitted immediately to L.D. Bell, his record expunged of any reference to the expulsion, tutorials to help him catch up on missed classes and a public announcement of the resolution. Buinger's staff readily agreed, but since it was already Thursday, they thought Taylor should come back to Bell on Monday.

No, Robert Hess said. Tomorrow.

Applause greeted the announcement, at an 11 a.m. joint news conference, that Taylor Hess would be returning to L.D. Bell the next morning. Taylor said it hadn't been "a pleasant experience, but I hold no personal grudges." Robert Hess said, "What I was hoping for is exactly what I got." Gene Buinger said, "Zero-tolerance policies have become excessive.... The school board is now undertaking a complete review of district policy. We want to give as much discretion as possible to local administrators so we don't have to repeat this situation."

In time, the district would revise its policy, among other things ending the mandatory one-year term for expulsions. All that remained unresolved were the fundamental reasons for zero-tolerance policies in the first place. Gene Buinger knew as much; he knew that if another student had lifted the knife from Taylor's pickup and used it in an altercation, they would have endured an even more impassioned response. He knew also what he would hear in the next knife-on-campus case: I want the same as Taylor Hess. If I don't get the same, it's discrimination.

There were no simple answers. Still, returning to L.D. Bell after the final news conference, Jim Short saw one thing clearly. This day happened to be the occasion for another random security sweep of the campus, complete with drug-sniffing dogs. There they were, out on the parking lot, just as they were the morning they spotted Taylor's knife. This crew had never found drugs, hardly ever weapons. Littering and tardiness had been the biggest problems at Bell all year.

"No thank you," Short told the dog handlers. "You're not going to do this today. Stay out of the parking lot. Stay out of our classes."
Print the post  

Announcements

What was Your Dumbest Investment?
Share it with us -- and learn from others' stories of flubs.
When Life Gives You Lemons
We all have had hardships and made poor decisions. The important thing is how we respond and grow. Read the story of a Fool who started from nothing, and looks to gain everything.
Contact Us
Contact Customer Service and other Fool departments here.
Work for Fools?
Winner of the Washingtonian great places to work, and Glassdoor #1 Company to Work For 2015! Have access to all of TMF's online and email products for FREE, and be paid for your contributions to TMF! Click the link and start your Fool career.