Don’t sharpen your pencil in Katy

Yet another example of a zero-tolerance policy, atempting to be moron-proof ending up being moronic. When will people learn that zero-tolerance is an idiotic thing to do? (“History never repeats, I tell myself before I go to sleep…”)

Oct. 22, 2003, 12:26AM

No slack for pencil sharpener

Katy schools sued after girl disciplined

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

When she was growing up in South Korea, Sumi Lough says, she used the traditional pencil sharpener that all children there used: a 2-inch-long blade that folds into a small handle.

Now a resident of Katy, Lough went to a school supply store while visiting Seoul, South Korea, and bought one of the sharpeners for her daughter to use.

But what may be considered a routine item for schoolchildren there was alarming enough in the Katy school district to get Lough’s 13-year-old daughter in deep trouble. School officials viewed it as a potential weapon.

Now Lough and her husband, Alan, are pressing a federal lawsuit that accuses the district of punishing their eighth-grader, Christina, without a fair hearing.

“This is one of the most egregious examples of overreaching and lack of due process that I’ve ever seen,” their attorney, Neal H. Paster, said Tuesday.

District officials said they had no choice but to follow their zero-tolerance policy to the letter, however.

“If we vary from the rules, that’s when the rules fall apart,” said Christopher B. Gilbert, an attorney for the district.

Christina Lough, a straight-A student at Garland McMeans Junior High School, was punished after a teacher saw the sharpener in class on Oct. 8.

In addition to being ordered to attend a special disciplinary class for seven days, the girl was removed as president of the student council and honor society.

Her parents filed a lawsuit last week in a Fort Bend County state district court, and it was transferred to federal court in Houston on Monday.

What Sumi Lough saw as part of her Korean heritage, school officials viewed in the same category as a knife, razor, or box cutter, the parents contend.

Their lawsuit also accuses district officials of retroactively including the pencil sharpener on the list of prohibited items.

Gilbert countered that the district was merely adhering to its zero-tolerance policy and that no exceptions could be made.

Zero-tolerance policies, which apply inflexible penalties for certain infractions, are widespread among Texas schools and often controversial, said Eric Hartman, legislative director for the Texas Federation of Teachers.

The Loughs, who declined to be interviewed Tuesday, say in their lawsuit that their daughter’s pencil sharpener came to a teacher’s attention after another student borrowed it, used it to sharpen a pencil and left it on a desk.

“The teacher unilaterally determined that the device was illicit, and she proceeded to write up a disciplinary notice form,” the lawsuit states, despite Christina’s attempt to explain that it was not a weapon.

“The school believes it is following its own rules,” Gilbert said. Paster said the Loughs have no objection to the school’s banning the pencil sharpener, but want their daughter treated fairly.

“They just want the punishment to fit the crime,” he said. “This was an innocent mistake on her part and they are treating it as if it were the second coming of the hijackers.”

But Gilbert said the punishment could have been worse. He said the district could have expelled Christina from the National Junior Honor Society and kept her in disciplinary classes longer than seven days.

Richard Kouri, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, said controversy was inevitable once districts began adopting zero-tolerance policies.

“It happens in any system where discipline is based on a formula,” he said.

Such policies are too inflexible at times, Kouri said, “but when you get into that category regarding weapons, it’s hard to be more flexible because the rules are designed to protect children and staff.”

Hartman, of the teachers’ federation, said that unless an item is clearly illegal under state law, districts have the discretion to show leniency to students who don’t intentionally violate school policy.

But when schools use discretion, they run the risk of being accused of bias and discrimination, he said.

“Their lawyers advise them to treat everyone exactly the same.”

The more rigid and detailed the policy, Hartman said, the more chances for unintentionally punishing undeserving students. He said the federation believes that school districts should have fewer rules with serious consequences, but that those should be applied to all.