Zeroing in on No Tolerance

Texas Schools Target Drugs and Violence

One day in 1993, a 17-year-old El Paso high school student broke into his teacher's home with a shotgun. He shot and wounded Gudrun Aguirre, a French and German teacher, and killed her husband. This was the same student whom Aguirre had repeatedly sent to the principal's office for discipline. Once, the student slammed her against a wall at school. The school's administrators, however, continued to return the young man to her classroom. Aguirre told her story in February to legislators considering a "zero tolerance" policy on drugs, weapons, violence, and profanity in schools. Also present was Jerry Pyle, a teacher and member of the Alliance of Texas Educators. In three years, Pyle testified, he faced gun-wielding students six times. The final incident occurred when he tried to intervene in a rape attempt on another student and was beaten at gunpoint.

John Cole, president of the 20,000-member Texas Federation of Teachers (TFT), is quick to refer to these stories when discussing his organization's zero tolerance proposal. The TFT has nurtured the policy through two years of press conferences, committee hearings, and now, floor votes. Within the next few weeks, the Texas Legislature will probably pass an overhauled version of the education code, most likely containing some form of zero tolerance. The Senate has already approved such a measure, and the House is expected to do so also. It will be, according to Cole, the first such policy in the nation, and hence the toughest statewide school behavioral code in the U.S.

Zero tolerance is nearly as simple as the slogan itself: Any student caught with illegal drugs, and any student who brings a weapon to school or assaults someone on school grounds, will be removed from that school. Period.

There is no room in zero tolerance for exceptions, which sounds reasonable enough in situations like Pyle and Gudrun's. But Cole readily admits that such situations themselves are exceptional. "That's not to say that every other kid in Texas is carrying a gun to school," he says. "I think it's only something like one percent." But that small percentage, he says, has turned some urban schools into virtual armed camps, with metal detectors and guards.

TFT's proposal has widespread support. After years of national handwringing over a perceived drug problem in public schools, and after countless news reports of shootings, stabbings, and attacks on school grounds, polls show that the public overwhelmingly supports more drastic measures to try to control violence and substance abuse among teens. A recent survey of Texans by the TFT counted 91% of those polled in favor of a zero-tolerance policy.

While Cole says a great number of schools say they already have zero tolerance for such offenses - including some in the Austin area (see sidebar) - few districts around the state practice what they preach in such a stringent manner. He knows of only six - Corpus Christi, San Antonio, El Paso, Houston, Victoria, Grand Prairie, and Goose Creek - with zero-tolerance policies that measure up to TFT's standards. Several districts, like AISD, call their policy "zero tolerance" but will actually take factors like the student's past behavior into consideration when determining what sort of discipline to use.

At these schools, Mitch Ingram would probably still be attending classes and getting ready for graduation. But last February, Dripping Springs High School officials found the remains of a joint in the back of his pickup truck. He was expelled.

Dripping Springs' policy, in practice, resembles the proposed state law. The district has parents and students sign off on a notice declaring the district's objections to drugs and alcohol. Students are told that they will be held responsible for items found in their vehicles. Even though there are seven possible penalties for violating Dripping Springs' drug policy - ranging from Saturday school and detention period to expulsion - administrators do not give second chances when it comes to drugs. "If the offense is serious enough, the campus administrators can skip over lesser punishments," says Tony Riehl, superintendent at Dripping Springs. "In the case of possession of drugs... we consider that a very serious offense."

But Ingram doesn't want a second chance - he wants his name cleared. Ingram, until recently a senior at Dripping Springs, was an honors student, well liked by other teens. He won the school's science fair two years in a row, played basketball and baseball, and recently placed second in a national Spanish contest. Ingram was less than a semester from graduation in February when officials found a roach in the ashtray in the back of his pickup truck, which was parked on school grounds. He claimed it wasn't his, and made a pretty good case for himself, passing both polygraph and blood tests.

Ingram's parents, Lisa and Larry, appealed the expulsion to the Superintendent Riehl, who initially upheld the principal's decision, then later offered Ingram a chance to complete high school in an "alternative education program" for kids who have gotten into trouble. The Ingrams turned down the proposal, forcing an open meeting of the Dripping Springs School Board last month so the community could watch the seven-member board decide on the matter.

As 150 people looked on, many wearing pink ribbons in support of Ingram, his mother blasted the school district for being inflexible. "All the things they tell parents to watch for [regarding drugs], we haven't seen it. He comes in when he says he will, he talks to us, we've never smelled anything," she says. "He has good grades, he works weekends at the pizza place, and when he's not working, a lot of times he has his friends over at our house playing their instruments and watching movies.

"By the time the school district administration came up with an alternative education plan, we had satisfied ourselves of Mitch's innocence," she says. "To accept an alternative education plan would be to admit that Mitch is guilty, which we don't believe he is."

It all began on February 24, 1995, when a drug-sniffing dog named "Concho" indicated to his handler that there might be something illicit in Ingram's golden Chevy, double-cab pickup truck. Ingram gave the go-ahead to have the truck searched, and the handler testified at the school board meeting that he found two wooden pipes, a pair of hemostats that appeared to have been used as a roach clip, and the remains of a joint in the ashtray behind the driver's seat. As the testimony progressed, things looked bad for Mitch. A gangly teenager with longish, sandy brown hair, Ingram spoke quietly and seemed intimidated by the mass of adults gathered to determine his fate. He stumbled over his words, and at times needed help from his lawyer to get his point across.

But the points were made. The hemostats, Ingram said, were given to him a day or two earlier by a friend. The friend, student John Cates, testified that this was true. Ingram claimed he clipped them to his visor to hold up a computer-drawing made for him by his 16-year old brother.

Ingram's lawyer, Joe Turner, pulled out a plastic grocery bag full of 20 or 30 wooden pipes belonging to Ingram and a friend, similar to the two discovered in the truck. Where did you find these, the lawyer queried. Well, Ingram said, he and a friend were cleaning out an old water tank (located near the school board president's property), found the pipes, thought they were neat, and brought them home. As for the roach, Ingram said, he has no idea how it got there. Like many who live in the small community about 30 minutes west of Austin, Ingram doesn't lock his car, and speculates that someone else must have left it in there. His father, a construction worker, actually owns the truck, though Mitch drives it most of the time. To try to prove his innocence, Ingram took a blood test a couple of days after the truck was searched. At the suggestion of school administrators, he also took a polygraph test. He passed both.

"His family has done everything possible to prove that Mitch is innocent," Turner said in a closing statement to the school board. "It's not a fair interpretation of the policy to convict him. There's nothing wrong with being tough. It is wrong to be unfair."

Strictly speaking, no one questioned that the items were found in Ingram's truck. And under Dripping Springs' rules - rules that Ingram and his mother signed off on - that made him responsible, whether he knew he was carrying a joint around or not. In the end, that was enough for the school board. Ingram was again offered the chance to finish the year at an alternative education program in the Hays Consolidated Independent School District, with expulsion his only alternative. This time he accepted. He will be allowed to participate in graduation with his class and will begin his freshman year in college at the Austin Community College this fall, majoring in international business with a minor in Spanish.

Ingram's mother, however, admonished the school board for disrupting her son's life. She says their family will likely be able to pick up the pieces of Mitch's education and get him to college, but says she fears for other kids who may not have such support. She gestured to the people who crowded the high school gymnasium for the board meeting, saying "For days I felt like Mitch's future was completely gone. My concern is if this policy continues, the next student might not have the support Mitch does, might think that's the end of his future and do something drastic.

"I object to this `let's not help students, let's catch students'," she continued. "I do not consider a district that will throw away their students like this to be a success."

But Tony Riehl says that because Dripping Springs does not have big city problems of violence and disruption, the district needs a strict policy to maintain that atmosphere. It's that quiet community lifestyle, he says, which has the town growing at a steady rate. The high school currently has about 590 students, and Riehl says the district estimates that number will jump to 1,000 by the turn of the century. "People move to this area for the quality of life, and because of this school district," he says. "Some of the things we're trying to do in implementing the discipline management plan is to preserve the very reason that people move here. Parents want to be assured that there aren't drugs, gangs, and weapons on campus, and that if there are, we'll do the best we can to remove it."

When confronted with cases like Ingram's, where it might sound reasonable to make an exception to the rules, Cole appeals to common sense. "If you make exceptions, everyone thinks that they are the exception... I really don't think you want a policy that says it's okay to bring marijuana to school once," he says. And as far as punishment goes, he says, expulsion is the only viable solution. "You don't want to take a kid who's been caught selling drugs out of the bathroom and give him in-school suspension, because he still has access to the bathroom and his customers."

Instead, the TFT's proposal includes a provision requiring districts to provide some sort of optional alternative education program for kids who are tossed out of school. As it's currently proposed, about 3,600 kids are expected to participate in such a program, estimated to cost $50.4 million during the next two years, a figure that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) requested in its budget proposal. According to TEA chief of staff Michelle Willhelm, the agency expects the state to pitch in the money (see this week's "On the Lege").

Some districts are ahead of the game, with similar programs already in place. Until recently, Ingram attended half-day classes along with 26 other kids at the newly opened Hays Consolidated ISD Impact Center. According to principal Peter Garza, the program employs two full-time teachers, one substitute teacher, and an aide, and is structured by necessity so the teens can work at their own pace. Junior high students attend in the morning, and high schoolers in the afternoon. With such an age span, "the students come from different [academic], levels, so you might have an English class with freshmen and seniors," Garza says.

The fledgling program cost about $150,000 to run this year, according to the district's business office. The curriculum is modest: basic English, math, science and history, a change of pace for Ingram, who was enrolled in senior-level English, physics, economics, and theater classes before this all happened. He was able to finish school through the Impact Center in six days, completing the program last week.

At Dripping Springs, "he was in a peer tutoring program, where he tutored a kid for one period a day who couldn't speak English," Ingram's mother says. " He lost the tutoring job, and couldn't keep up in physics or theater. We really feel like he paid academically." While Ingram was hoping to go to the University of Texas this fall, he now plans to start out at the ACC. "Our lawyer told us we could still do it [sue] because we feel our due process was violated... but Mitch is tired of being the center of attention. He feels like he put the facts out there and cleared his name in public."

Cole says the current problems with drugs and violence in schools have been evolving over decades, coming in part out of a changing desire to keep kids in school, and partly out of a bureaucratic maneuvering. "During the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, getting a high school education was a nice thing, but not necessarily a given. You didn't need to know higher level physics to be a roughneck and make good money at it. So a lot of people dropped out of school early," he says. "During the Sixties and Seventies, when schools were... deciding to incorporate everybody, the whole attitude changed from `if you don't like it here you're out,' to `let's see what we can do to encourage kids to stay.' But in the zeal to encourage kids to stay, the prime directive became `keep this kid in school regardless of any other circumstances'."

At the same time, Cole says, schools began losing their dress codes, relaxing rules on things like swearing and insubordination. "Eventually, we've reached the point where now teachers are told they have to put up with being assaulted and beaten up," he says. "That's where the system breaks down and that's where we're at with many schools in this state right now."

Cole also blames bureaucrats whose instincts are to "push off onto somebody else unpleasant things, to keep themselves out of the heat. Many of our school bureaucrats felt that if there was an incident at school, it's a bad public relations incident and they dealt with it as a public relations problem, not as a problem with school violence," he says. "So if a principal called the police over a fight or over students with drugs or guns, you'd get someone from downtown calling and saying, `this is terrible, We've got our name in the paper and it's not on the sports page. Can't you do something about this?' So it got out there, don't let these things get known."

Interestingly, Cole is not one to rail against the evils of marijuana. He raises the question of whether society has a legitimate interest in people who smoke pot. "Is the debate about the propriety of marijuana still an active one? Most of my contemporaries would have said marijuana is at least as harmless as alcohol; of course, the response to that is, well that's not very harmless," he says. Cole sidestepped the question, instead comparing school to the workplace.

"Drugs are of course illegal, I guess, the ones we're talking about. There is that. So we should be teaching that the law has to be followed. But it would not make any difference if you're talking about alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine. The lesson is, you don't come drunk to your workplace. If you do that when you graduate from school you are going to be fired," he says. "That lesson needs to be communicated to students, and if we don't communicate it, the other message we communicate is a bad one, which is, yeah, it's okay to come to school and bring these things. It establishes a pattern of behavior."

Cole is hesitant to say that school districts have any business searching a student's vehicle. But while he is not familiar with the details of Ingram's case, he agrees that if the senior knew he was to be responsible for anything found in his truck, then Ingram should be punished.

"But the bigger problem isn't the kid with a marijuana cigarette in his car; it's students who are disrupting other students' right to an education," he says. And as far as Ingram goes, and any others like him: "He knew what was expected. It's one of the lessons in life, you have to learn sometimes that there are consequences for your actions."

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