When making distinctions will get you sued, you have to treat a butterknife and a broadsword the same.
Shelby Sendelbach, a sixth-grader in the Katy Independent School District, was read her rights, ticketed and punished with a mandatory four-month assignment to an alternative school because she wrote "I love Alex" on a gymnasium wall with a baby blue Sharpie.
The graffiti offense is a Level 4 infraction in the district's discipline plan, along with making terroristic threats, possessing dangerous drugs, and assaulting with bodily injury. Only a Level 5 — for murder, possessing firearms, committing aggravated or sexual assault, arson or other felonies — is more severe.
Shelby's parents, Lisa and Stu Sendelbach, say they do not condone what their daughter did. Nevertheless, they are fighting to get her punishment reduced because they believe it is too harsh.
The Sendelbachs said they expected a lesser punishment such as an in-school suspension and community service. Shelby is assigned to alternative school from Aug. 27 through Dec. 21. A district-level appeal hearing is scheduled later this month.
"We are shocked that the school district rules as they are written make no distinction between what Shelby is accused of and what a gang member does with a can of black spray paint," Stu Sendelbach said.
The 12-year-old Mayde Creek Junior High student said she regrets the May 21 incident for which school police cited her for criminal mischief and the making of graffiti. The graffiti offense is punishable as a felony because the marking was made in permanent ink.
And the reality is that Katy ISD is know for its strict zero tolerance policies, so don't expect any mercy for this girl. After all, that would give the gang kid who tagged up the entire building or the kid who threatened to blow up the building a chance to claim that they were discriminated against.
Interestingly enough, state law does NOT require this outcome.
But Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, disagreed. Eissler co-authored House Bill 603 in 2005, which gives administrators more latitude to consider disciplinary history, intent, whether a student has a disability that would impair judgment or acted in self-defense in deciding punishment.
"They have all the leeway they want," he said. "They didn't have to hammer this young lady the way they did. That's why I wrote HB 603 — to give school districts authority to back off the black-and-white justice."
I won't take a position on what the appropriate punishment is in this case -- but I think we can all agree that an entire semester in the alternative school for the most severe disciplinary problems, including violent felons, is probably not it.
UPDATE -- 7/11/07: Common sense may prevail.
The Katy Independent School District is reconsidering a decision to send a sixth-grader to alternative school for four months after she confessed to writing "I love Alex" on a school gymnasium wall with a baby blue Sharpie.
Under a firestorm of criticism, the district is researching discipline options for Shelby Sendelbach, a 12-year-old Mayde Creek Junior High School pupil who was punished by the district with a Level 4 infraction after writing the message in permanent ink.
The graffiti offense — on par with making terroristic threats, drug possession and assault — is punishable as a felony under the district's discipline plan. Only a Level 5 is more severe — for murder, possessing firearms, aggravated or sexual assault and arson.
We'll know more next week.
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