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Zero Tolerance Lets a Student's Future Hang on a Knife's Edge

A utensil fell into Taylor Hess' pickup, dropping him into a storm over school policy.

August 11, 2002|BARRY SIEGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HURST, Texas — No big deal. That's what 16-year-old Taylor Hess thought, watching the assistant principal walk into his fourth-period class.

For Taylor, life was good, couldn't be better. He was an honors student. He was a star on the varsity swim team. That morning, he'd risen at 5:30 for practice. It was agonizing, diving into the school pool before sunrise, but Taylor liked getting something done early. He also liked the individuality of his sport, how in swimming you can only blame yourself.

The assistant principal, he now realized, was looking at him. In fact, Nathaniel Hearne was pointing at him. "Get your car keys," Hearne said. "Come with me."

Taylor still thought, no big deal. Maybe he'd left his headlights on. Maybe he'd parked where he shouldn't.

"A knife has been spotted in your pickup," Hearne said.

He'd gone camping with friends on Saturday, Taylor told him. Maybe someone left a machete in the truck.

"OK," Hearne said. "We'll find out."

In the parking lot, beside the 1993 cranberry red Ford Ranger he'd worked all summer to buy, Taylor saw Alan Goss, the Hurst city policeman assigned full time to L.D. Bell High. He also saw two private security officers holding a pair of dogs trained to find drugs and weapons.

Taylor looked at the bed of his pickup. It wasn't a machete after all, but an unserrated bread knife with a round point. A long bread knife, a good 10 inches long, lying right out in the open.

Now it clicked. That's my grandma's kitchen knife, Taylor explained. She had a stroke, we had to move her to assisted living, put her stuff in our garage. Last night we took it all to Goodwill. This must have fallen out of a box. I'll lock it up in the cab. Or you can keep it. Or you can call my parents to come get it.

The others just kept staring at the knife. Taylor thought they looked confused, like they didn't know what to do.

"Is it sharp?" Hearne finally asked.

Officer Goss ran his finger along the blade. "It's fairly sharp in a couple of spots."

Hearne slipped the knife inside his sport coat. Taylor walked with him back to class, wondering what his punishment might be. Saturday detention hall, maybe. He'd never pulled D hall before, never been in any trouble.

"Get your stuff and come to my office," Hearne said. "I've got to warn you, Taylor, this is a pretty serious thing."

*

Beginnings at Columbine

The Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District, about 12 miles west of Dallas, resembles so many others that have fashioned zero-tolerance polices to combat mounting fears of campus violence. For most districts, it began in 1994 with the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, which required all schools receiving federal aid to expel students who bring firearms to campus. Many states and school boards, appalled by the shootings that culminated in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, adopted policies even wider and tougher than the federal law. Everything from paper guns to nail files became weapons, everything from second-grade kisses to Tylenol tablets cause for expulsion. In countless rule books, "shall" and "must" replaced administrative discretion.

There'd been crazy situations ever since: Eighth-graders arrested for bringing "purple cocaine"--grape Kool-Aid--in lunch boxes; a sixth-grader suspended for bringing a toy ax as part of his Halloween fireman costume; a boy expelled for having a "hit list" that turned out to be his birthday party guests. Pundits clucked and civil rights lawyers protested, but for the most part, parents liked the changes, in fact campaigned for them. They wanted more rules, stricter rules. They also wanted consistency. They wanted students treated equally.

Jim Short, the principal of L.D. Bell High, understood all this as he sat at his desk on Monday afternoon, Feb. 25. Just minutes before, they'd found Taylor Hess' knife. Short's heart told him to ignore the matter. He knew Taylor well, thought him a great kid, a terrific young man. He believed the boy's story, he understood what had happened. He didn't believe Taylor had done anything wrong. Yet as principal, Short didn't think he could turn a blind eye.

Before him he had the Texas Education Code's Chapter 37 and his own school district's student code of conduct. They both told him the same thing: He had no latitude. There it was in the state code: A student shall be expelled ... if the student on school property ... possesses an illegal knife. There it was in the district code: Student will be expelled for a full calendar year....

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