SIEGEL LOS ANGELES TIMES
HURST, Texas -- No
big deal. That's what Taylor Hess, 16,
thought, watching the assistant
principal walk into his fourth-period
For Taylor, life couldn't be better.
He was an honors student. He was a star
on the varsity swim team.
But the assistant principal, Taylor
realized, was looking at him. In fact,
Nathaniel Hearne was pointing at him.
"Get your car keys," Hearne
said. "Come with me. A knife has
been spotted in your pickup."
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 School. 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
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
The others just kept staring at the
knife. Taylor thought they looked
confused, like they didn't know what to
"Is it sharp?" Hearne
Officer Goss ran his finger along the
blade. "It's fairly sharp in a
couple of spots."
Hearne slipped the knife inside his
"Get your stuff and come to my
office," Hearne said. "I've
got to warn you, Taylor, this is a
pretty serious thing."
The Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent
School District, about 12 miles west of
Dallas, resembles many others that have
fashioned zero-tolerance polices to
combat fears of campus violence.
Jim Short, the principal of L.D. Bell
High, understood this as he sat at his
desk Monday afternoon, Feb. 25. 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
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."
Still, Short had a sick feeling.
At 2 p.m. that day, Short met with
five assistant principals and the Hurst
police officer, Alan Goss. They traded
opinions without reaching a consensus.
More voices soon chimed in. The Texas
Education Agency advised that the
district had to proceed against Taylor.
At 2:40 p.m., Taylor Hess, summoned
from his 11th-grade advanced-placement
chemistry class, stepped into the
He explained again, telling Short
about his grandma's stroke, packing up
her stuff, driving to Goodwill. Short
appeared to believe him but still looked
mighty serious. When Taylor stopped
talking, Short said, "Taylor, are
you aware this calls for mandatory
Robert and Gay Hess, Taylor's
parents, have an unspoken rule. She
doesn't call him at work unless it's
urgent. She's a physical therapist's
assistant; he's a customer service
manager for an airline at the
Dallas-Fort Worth airport. At 3 p.m.
that Monday, his pager beeped while he
sat in a staff meeting. He bolted from
the room to call his wife.
"You're not going to believe
this," she began, sounding
Robert Hess tried to calm his wife.
It was a bread knife, after all. Taylor
obviously never even saw it. They were
all grown-ups, weren't they?
Late that day, he called Jim Short's
office and arranged to meet with him the
Ten years ago, Short would have
handled the Taylor Hess situation
himself. Now, Short had to talk to his
district supervisors, who talked to the
district superintendent, Gene Buinger.
People in Buinger's office had to talk
to the Texas Education Agency and local
police authorities. The rules and codes
kept evolving. Although the federal
Gun-Free Schools Act had allowed them
"case by case" flexibility,
the state refined the rules and the
districts refined them even further. It
was Texas that required expulsion of a
student with an "illegal
knife," but it was Short's own
district that insisted the expulsion be
for a full year.
Still, Buinger had to admit
zero-tolerance rules made life easier.
They eased the burden. By applying
consistency instead of subjective
judgment, you had support for your
actions rather than claims of
Deep down, despite his unease, Short
agreed. He had to admit: He derived a
certain comfort in not having
discretion. He could lean on that. He
could then say he followed the formula.
Robert Hess appeared in his office at
2:15 p.m. Tuesday. Assistant Principal
Nathaniel Hearne joined them. So did the
Hurst police officer, Alan Goss. Hess
sat down, ready to settle this as he did
most problems. Right off, though, Short
handed him a letter and asked him to
sign a receipt for it.
For the first time, Hess began to
feel a little nervous. "Wait a
minute," he said. "Let me read
"This letter is to notify you
that your son, Ryan Taylor Hess, is
being considered for expulsion from L.D.
Bell High School. We have scheduled a
Due Process Hearing for Friday, March 1
at 9:00 a.m."
Short would preside at the hearing,
he explained. He'd be following the code
of conduct. It would be unlikely that
he'd be able to recommend anything but
Hess, normally easy with
conversation, sat speechless. OK, he
thought, this has gone a step or two
further than he'd expected. But surely
they'd resolve this at the hearing. They
just needed to prepare.
Numb and in shock
A door at the rear of the principal's
office leads into a private conference
room. There everyone gathered at 9 a.m.
Friday, settling around a rectangular
table. On the table, a tape recorder
turned silently. Facing the Hess family
now, along with Short, Hearne and Goss,
was Dianne Byrnes, who directs the
district's "alternative education
programs" for problem kids.
This wouldn't be adversarial, Short
had advised. Yet it seemed that way to
the Hesses. Taylor felt numb, in shock,
ready for anything. He talked little,
trying instead to grasp what was going
on. Same with his mother, who couldn't
believe this was even happening. Mainly,
Robert Hess spoke for the family.
Whoever loses his temper, he reminded
himself, is at a disadvantage. So he
spoke politely, without a hint of
antagonism, something that Short noted
and appreciated. Yet as they walked
through the facts of the case, Hess
poured on the questions, unrelenting.
You don't have the knife or a photo
of the knife at this hearing? You don't
have a copy of the police report? You're
sitting here today without any of the
evidence? Do you really think these
proceedings are fair? Do you really feel
you're following the spirit of the law?
Do any of you in the least doubt the
truth of Taylor's explanation? What are
your feelings about the school
district's zero-tolerance policies? How
do you feel about what you're doing to
Byrnes took the hardest line.
"Taylor did have a knife visible in
his truck," she said. "Taylor
did put students at risk. The spirit of
the law is to ensure the safety of
students. I think there was a risk
At 11 a.m., two hours into the
hearing, Byrnes left. Hess seized the
opportunity. He asked Short how he felt.
"Miserable," the principal
said, with a rueful laugh. "How's
that?" He paused. "There's not
a good feeling in my body about
Half an hour later, they all rose.
Short usually ruled right away in these
situations, but not today. "I want
to think about this over the
weekend," he told the Hess family.
Late on Monday afternoon, Robert Hess
called the L.D. Bell office. "I
need another day," Jim Short told
him. "I want to make sure we do the
right thing for Taylor and for the
student population of Bell High."
Hess' heart sank. Right thing for the
student population. Oh my God, he
thought. They're going to expel Taylor.
The call from Short finally came at
3:15 p.m. Tuesday. "I've decided to
expel Taylor," the principal told
Robert Hess. "You can appeal. I
encourage you to appeal. If you do, I'll
be one of Taylor's biggest
Driving to the school, he called his
wife of 28 years. She'd been more
optimistic than him. "Baby,"
he said. "They're expelling
First came a long silence. Then Gay
In Short's office, Hess and the
principal swapped letters.
Legalese filled Short's: "This
is to inform you of my decision to
recommend expulsion of Ryan Taylor Hess
from L.D. Bell High School."
Hess' cited a federal appellate court
ruling in another zero-tolerance case: A
school administrator that executed such
an action could be held personally
liable and would not have the luxury of
his qualified immunity.
They called Taylor in. He'd been
waiting in the anteroom, summoned again
from his advanced-placement chemistry
class. Short explained his decision.
Taylor felt gut-punched, stung with
pain. All my hard work shot, he thought.
Honors classes, the swim team, all a
waste of time. He held his tongue,
though. Short thought him amazingly
Four school days passed after Taylor
was expelled and sent to Crossroads, the
district's educational program
"designed for students who lack the
motivation to conduct themselves in
accordance with the district's student
code of conduct." The Hesses
finally told Grandma Rose about Taylor's
expulsion. She offered to go talk to the
principal, to tell him he'd made a
terrible mistake. She cried when they
told her this was one thing she couldn't
The story spreads
On the Thursday afternoon of spring
break, district Superintendent Gene
Buinger arrived home to find a note on
his front door. It was from Monica
Mendoza, a reporter for the Fort Worth
Star-Telegram. Robert Hess had contacted
her, she advised, and had provided her a
tape recording of Taylor's due process
hearing. She'd be writing a story for
the Sunday paper. Did Buinger want to
Buinger had heard about the Taylor
Hess case. There were 20,000 students in
his district, though, so he didn't have
a complete grasp of the matter. His
first response to the reporter's note
was surprise that the Hess family had
gone to a newspaper.
He declined to comment to the
reporter, explaining that federal law
prevented him from responding. Then he
braced himself for the article.
By 10 that morning, the onslaught had
begun, mostly directed at Short. Phone
calls, e-mails, radio talk shows, TV
cameras -- from all quarters, pundits
and outraged citizens were lambasting
"Zero tolerance is a
cop-out." "Here my tax dollars
are paying a principal to not use his
"I am so disgusted."
The loudest voices came not from
civil libertarians but from the
crowd. "Free men are armed, slaves
are disarmed." "The
Constitution guarantees the right of the
people to bear arms."
Buinger and Short realized there was
no way to look good. Truth was, they
didn't feel good. Buinger thought of his
old Marine adage: There's a time when
you have to stand at attention and take
By Tuesday, though, he'd decided to
respond. The school district called a
news conference for 2 p.m. Buinger still
wouldn't discuss the details of the Hess
case, but he wanted to explain the state
laws and district codes that mandated
their zero-tolerance policy. With
printed handouts and a big-screen
PowerPoint presentation, he emphasized
the "musts" and "shalls."
The outcry wouldn't stop, though. The
national newspapers were calling him
now. The school district was getting
crucified. The Hurst Police Department
had backed away, deciding not to file a
complaint with the county prosecutor. So
had the Texas Education Agency, telling
The Associated Press that local
districts did have discretion, that
"every case has to be looked at
Toward a solution
Early Wednesday evening, the phone
rang at the Hess home. It was an
assistant superintendent in Buinger's
office. Would the Hesses be agreeable to
a 9 a.m. meeting, he wondered, before
the scheduled appeal? The district had
some ideas. The district thought matters
maybe could be resolved.
In the end, it all came down to what
had been lacking, to what everyone said
the law didn't allow: personal judgment.
The federal Gun-Free Schools Act had
included a clause specifying that state
laws "shall" allow school
superintendents to modify expulsion
requirements. The Texas Education Agency
had made clear that the term of
expulsions "may be reduced from the
statutory one year." Yet it was the
Hurst-Euless-Bedford district's code
that governed in the Hess case -- and
the district handcuffed itself by
mandating inflexible one-year
Now, one day before the Hesses'
appeal, Buinger decided to waive
district policy; he'd rescind the
Buinger explained his plan to the
Hesses on Friday morning. Just then,
however, an assistant came in carrying a
newly arrived fax from the state
agency's legal department. No, the fax
advised, Buinger couldn't rescind the
expulsion. He could only reduce the
expulsion to time served.
Buinger shared with them the
conflicting advice he'd received. This
does call for expulsion, he said, but we
can adjust the amount of time. Is that
OK with you?
Robert Hess had a typed list of
conditions. "Yes," he said.
"If we can agree on these."
The Hesses wanted Taylor readmitted
immediately to L.D. Bell, his record
expunged of any reference to the
expulsion, tutorials to help him catch
up on missed classes and a public
announcement of the resolution.
Buinger's staff readily agreed, but
because it was already Thursday, they
thought Taylor should come back to Bell
on Monday. No, Robert Hess said.
Applause greeted the announcement
that Taylor Hess would be returning to
L.D. Bell the next morning. Taylor said
it hadn't been "a pleasant
experience, but I hold no personal
Buinger said: "Zero-tolerance
policies have become excessive. ... We
want to give as much discretion as
possible to local administrators so we
don't have to repeat this
In time, the district would revise
its policy, ending the mandatory
one-year term for expulsions.
There were no simple answers. Still,
returning to L.D. Bell after the final
news conference, Short saw one thing
clearly. This day happened to be the
occasion for another random security
sweep of the campus, complete with
drug-sniffing dogs. There they were, out
on the parking lot, just as they were
the morning they spotted Taylor's knife.
This crew never had found drugs, hardly
ever weapons. Littering and tardiness
had been the biggest problems at Bell
"No thank you," Short told
the dog handlers. "You're not going
to do this today. Stay out of the
parking lot. Stay out of our