Houston Teachers Suffer Zero Tolerance

Houston Teachers Suffer Zero Tolerance

Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk syndicate
Copyright 2009

I've long complained that zero tolerance policies turn school administrators into bureaucratic automatons who lack any common sense or compassion for rule breakers. From a first grade boy who was suspended for having a weapon – a knife he got from the school cafeteria – to girls who had anti-PMS medication, administrators' blind adherence to zero tolerance has put stains on the permanent records of otherwise-good kids who have never been a minute's trouble.

And we all know how long those permanent records follow us around. According to my elementary school principal, this was something that was going to be shackled to my ankle for my entire adult life.

But now teachers for the Houston Independent School District (HISD) are shocked – SHOCKED! – to find these zero tolerance rules apply to them as well.

"Hey, these aren't just ruining students' lives. They could ruin ours too!" they all realized with a giant forehead slap. Especially the teachers who earlier spoke glowingly of what is officially known as Chapter 37 around the Houston area.

According to the Lone Star Times website, a few years ago Gayle Fallon of the Houston Federation of Teachers said the zero tolerance policy "makes our lives livable in an urban school district. We have great fear the Legislature will try and weaken Chapter 37, and that would be a shame because not only would you see an increase in campus crime… or acts of violence, you will see teachers leave (their jobs)."

Now Gayle is changing her tune, and recommending the district use more than a little discretion, because a couple of her members have been busted for the lack of common sense that brings Zero Tolerance stories in to the spotlight.

Like LeDarien Strauss, a special education teacher. According to the Houston Chronicle, Strauss was busted because he had prescription drugs in his car. His deceased dad's prescription drugs. In his deceased dad's car, because his own was being repaired.

So now Strauss has an attorney, James Fallon, Gayle's son. (You remember, the woman who said Chapter 37 made teachers' lives livable? The one who said weakening it would lead to more school crime? Guess Chapter 37 isn't the great panacea she once thought it was.)

Fallon the Younger told the Chronicle that Strauss is "the sweetest, kindest guy you'd ever meet. He's not popping pills and then going to work."

But Norm Uhl, a spokesman for the Houston Independent School District, told the Chronicle they're treating their employees as they would their students: like criminal thugs whose lives they can ruin with their innocent-until-proven-yeah-whatever viewpoint. Which means they're arresting teachers for having drugs of any sort at school, and then leaving it up to prosecutors to file charges.

“We do have discretion to accept charges or not accept charges, but as officers of the court, it’s our duty to see that justice is done,” said Donna Hawkins, a spokesperson for the Harris County D.A.'s office told the Chronicle. “We don’t discriminate based on whether somebody is a teacher or not.”

"We'll blindly screw up anyone's life without a second thought," she added.

Okay, she didn't really say that. She said that if a person can show proof of a valid prescription, then they shouldn't be in trouble with the law. The HISD just cackled evilly and rubbed their hands together with sinister glee.

Hawkins gave an example of an HISD food service worker who had drug charges against him dismissed after he was able to produce a prescription. Of course, I'm sure they didn't reimburse him for any lost wages, legal costs, or apologize for the embarrassment of being arrested as a dopehead and having his reputation sullied. Hopefully his employer was a little more forthcoming.

Doubt it.

Last December, the Houston police department took drug-sniffing dogs to every school parking lot to search for drugs.

One of the victims of the sweep is Melinda Herrick, a 59-year-old art teacher who had two Xanax in her car. Now the former Teacher of the Year is suspended and has been charged with having drugs in a drug-free zone.

Thankfully, her attorney expects the grand jury to drop the case, but she's still facing stiff legal costs. So much so that the Parent-Teacher Organization is having a fundraiser to cover her expenses. And her situation isn't unique. Other teachers have been caught up in this web of zero common sense.

Not surprisingly, Fallon and other attorneys worry their clients could lose their jobs and teaching licenses even if they're not convicted. Because zero tolerance means zero compassion too.

That innocent-until-proven-yeah-whatever joke isn't so funny now, huh?

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