Student snagged by zero tolerance prompts soul-searching
Grandmother's bread knife led to expulsion, outcry -- and rewritten rules


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

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 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.

"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 principal's office.

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 expulsion?"

Avoiding judgment

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 distraught.

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 next afternoon.

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 discrimination.

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 it."

"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 expulsion.

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 Taylor?

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 factor."

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 this."

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 advocates."

Driving to the school, he called his wife of 28 years. She'd been more optimistic than him. "Baby," he said. "They're expelling Taylor."

First came a long silence. Then Gay began crying.

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 courteous.

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 fix.

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 respond?

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 him.

"Zero tolerance is a cop-out." "Here my tax dollars are paying a principal to not use his judgment." "Ludicrous." "I am so disgusted."

The loudest voices came not from civil libertarians but from the anti-government, right-to-bear-arms 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 it.

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 individually."

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 expulsions.

Now, one day before the Hesses' appeal, Buinger decided to waive district policy; he'd rescind the expulsion.

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. Tomorrow.

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 grudges."

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 situation."

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 all year.

"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 classes."

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