By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Livid over the shotgun episode, Morris on October 1 requested a TEA investigation. She alleged that discipline for weapons-possession crimes wasn't fair because of "preferential treatment for white students in comparison to disciplinary sanctions for black students." The allegation picked up speed on October 25, when Sen. West, a Democrat whose district covers much of southern Dallas County, asked TEA Commissioner Jim Nelson to conduct an inquest.
Staff from TEA's school governance and safe schools divisions visited Lancaster on November 1, conducting interviews and sifting through files. Later, they reported no evidence of black students receiving harsher discipline than their white peers but "found a departure from past district practices" in the repeal of the shotgun duo's yearlong expulsions.
On September 7, separate conferences were held with the two boys and their families. John Tucci, principal of Lancaster High, assigned both students to the county Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP) for one year. That wasn't the end: On September 8, both students' parents appealed the punishments to a placement committee of district officials. They backed up the principal, but the leader of the panel disagreed.
Dwain Dawson, district director of personnel and the main district hearing officer chosen by the superintendent, counseled that the expulsions be shortened to one week, citing "poor judgment" on the part of the students. Oddly, he didn't recommend converting the expulsions to suspensions--they became miniexpulsions. Within hours, Ward ratified Dawson's recommendation and entered an order shrinking the boys' sentences. He even allowed the shotgun duo to make up missed schoolwork without penalty.
If Ward thought the incident would be forgotten in a week, he was wrong. Furor emanating from the black community was intense, and the TEA report was unsparing. It noted that the five-day sentence given to Jeff was incongruent with the boy's previous record of troublemaking. It turns out that in March 2000, Jeff committed a similar act and was sentenced to 90 days in JJAEP. Ward told TEA he wasn't aware of the prior offense, even though the agency's gumshoes easily located it in school records.
"A five-day 'expulsion' for Jeff [last name deleted], given his prior disciplinary record, appears to be in direct conflict with the Texas Education Agency's Safe Schools guidelines," said the report, which cited language in the district's Student Code of Conduct that contradicted the lighter punishment. It read: "Possession means being in control or possession of an item on the student's person, or in a car, locker, bag, or other article in the control of the student, regardless of the student's knowledge or intent to possess the item."
"In reviewing this incident," the report said, "and given the district policy on weapons, the Agency can find no other information that would support such a radical departure from the recommendation of a Placement Review Committee."
The report also said the district's board of trustees should have a final say on the matter, not the superintendent, since a placement panel--and not Dawson alone--heard the appeal. "It is the opinion of this office that all members of the committee, including the superintendent, are bound by the decision of the committee." In a page listing recommendations, TEA urged the board to take "expeditious" action to remedy "a critical precedent [that has] adversely impacted the district's student body in regard to discipline matters."
Trustee Stacks called the report "not reasonable" because the superintendent never ruled on an expulsion before. "So how can it be a radical departure?" he asked in a Dallas Morning News interview. He argued that revisiting his son's sentence would amount to "double jeopardy." Despite the TEA's report touting the primacy of the school board, Superintendent Ward's decision still stands.
The board did ask TEA for legal advice on whether altering the punishments after the fact would put it at risk of a lawsuit. At the January school board meeting, the district's lawyer made a convoluted presentation in which he argued that since Code of Conduct policies weren't codified in district bylaws, Ward's decision should stand.
The mostly black audience was outraged and grumbled in disapproval. One man charged that the board had jeopardized the safety of his kids. Another man, addressing the two black trustees, Morris and Edwin Kirkland, promised solidarity in the future: "We didn't know you all were dealing with so much down here, but now we know, and we are here to help."
It's something that troubles four-term Councilman Buchanon, who is African-American. These days, when Buchanon demands that Ward resign, he takes pains to note he defended the superintendent five years ago, when several school board members tried to get Ward fired on "ridiculous" charges of malfeasance. This time, however, Buchanon says Ward has really screwed up. Interestingly, he also says the row over the shotgun punishments isn't primarily a racial issue. Buchanon, who owns an African-American-themed art gallery in the town's main shopping strip, says it is more simply about an official on a power trip."When an individual feels they have power over you," says Buchanon, "they are not compelled to concede anything."