Editor's note: State law prohibits the use of a minor's full name in legal documents such as the petition the following article mentions. However during a hearing Monday the minors involved in the case were referred to by their full names. Therefore the Daily Progress will refer to them by their full names. Another student not mentioned in the case was referred to by her full name, but only her initials will be used in the following article.
A decision whether three Rusk High School students will not have to serve time at the district's alternative campus until a full trial will come Thursday, said District Judge Diane V. DeVasto following a hearing Monday at the Cherokee County Courthouse in Rusk.
The hearing came after a petition filled in Cherokee County District Court March 17 by Jill Wallace, on behalf of her daughter Callie Wallace; Robert and Renee Stewart, on behalf of their daughter Dakota Stewart; and Michael Nickle, seeking injunctions preventing the Rusk Independent School District to force the students into an alternative education program until a trial to determine whether due process was followed when the students were assigned their respective courses of discipline.
The case was filed following a Feb. 17-20 trip made by RHS's Future Farmers of America to San Antonio for a competition. During the trip, 17 of the 27 students were found to either be in possession of or use of alcohol. All 17 were suspended from school for three days and reassigned to the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP) for the remainder of the school year.
“This is not a case about parents who don't want their children punished for something they did wrong,” said Mike Wallace, attorney representing the Wallaces (his wife and daughter) and Nickle. “We realize a teen's book smarts does not compute with them making wise decisions.”
Mike Wallace said the defendants in the case believed that they were not given the equivalent of due process in the disciplinary actions against them because the students were given the suspensions and were assigned to DAEP before they were allowed to present any mitigating factors, such as past discipline history and academic achievements, that should be considered in their discipline.
“They (the defendants) have taken the position that the district will follow a one-size-fits-all policy,” Mike Wallace said, asserting that through the passage of CSHB 171 in 2009, the Texas Legislature required that student codes of conduct used in Texas school districts must state that mitigating factors will be considered when evaluating a student's behavior.
Chris Gilbert of Thompson & Horton LLP in Houston and Wayne Haglund of Lufkin represented RISD at the hearing.
“The problem that we had with this case … is they (the plaintiffs) don't say what provision we didn't follow,” Gilbert said in opening remarks.
Through witness questioning, Wallace and Frank McClendon, representing the Stewarts, attempted to establish that RISD did neither give students the opportunity to present any mitigating circumstances to be considered when they were punished nor behaved responsibly by not doing searches of students' bags prior to departure from Rusk for the trip or by establishing specific rules — including setting a curfew, telling students to not enter rooms of students of the opposite sex, not telling students to not leave the hotel and not doing proper room checks throughout the night — on the trip.
“It is completely because we have a chain of conduct that put these students in the position they're in,” Mike Wallace said.
On the stand, though, RHS agriculture teacher Brian Martin said he felt he did not need to specify to the students not to drink on the trip.
“I put my trust in these students, and they know that. I took them to San Antonio on trust,” he said. “I expected these kids to not do this on one of our trips, and they are well aware of that.
“I think they were well-supervised and I think they would testify to that.”
Jill Wallace later asserted on the stand that it was not punishment that she was trying to save her daughter from.
“The only thing we asked was that she (Callie Wallace) not be affected academically,” she said. “I said she could wash windows after school, scrape gum off from under chairs, write a 100-page essay — just don't take her out of her classes.”
All three students involved in the case testified that they were made to drop certain advanced placement and dual credit courses when they were assigned to DAEP — a move they all three said they thought would eliminate them from RISD's “Top 10” program designed to help rank students in their class.
RHS Counselor Terrie Daniel testified, however, that Callie Wallace and Dakota Stewart, both juniors, would be able to make up the courses they would miss while in DAEP this summer and remain on track for next year without compromising their class standing.
Nickle would forfeit his class ranking in the top 10 percent of his class, however, because he would not have time to make up the classes before graduation.
Through testimony, witnesses said the FFA group left Rusk the evening of Thursday, Feb. 17 and arrived in San Antonio early the morning of Friday, Feb. 18. Students spent time during the day that Friday going to competitions and working on projects to be shown the following day.
Students were helped with their projects by the two RISD teachers on the trip — long-term substitute teacher Stephanie Lynch and Martin — until approximately 3:15 a.m. the morning of Saturday, Feb. 19.
At about 6:30 a.m. Saturday, some of the students found fellow student P. P. unconscious in the hotel's hallway after having thrown up. The students alerted Lynch, who alerted Martin, who then called paramedics and P.P.'s parents, according to testimony Monday.
While Lynch was with P. P. at the hospital, Martin gathered all the students in a common room in the hotel and asked for those students involved in the incident to raise their hands as a means of confession, Martin said. He said he maintained contact with RHS Vice Principal Jason Wilcox throughout the day about the situation.
Wilcox told Martin to obtain written statements from each of the students who admitted guilt in the instance and to instruct the students that confessing their involvement initially would lessen potential punishment later.
Callie Wallace and Dakota Stewart testified that they were instructed to be detailed in their statements, telling what they did, what they saw, but nothing that was hearsay.
RHS Vice Principal Jason Wilcox testified that he went to San Antonio when he was alerted to the situation by Martin. When he arrived, he looked at the students' written statements about the instance, then talked to the students who were gathered on the bus in an attempt to elicit further confessions from students who were involved but who had yet to affirm their involvement.
Students were then sent home, departing San Antonio at about 8 p.m. Saturday night. Parents were alerted about the situation and were told their students were suspended from school for three days, beginning Monday, Feb. 21.
It was during that week that school officials attempted to schedule meetings with parents about their children's placement in DAEP, but the Wallaces filed their case in court during Callie Wallace's three-day suspension.
Nickle and the Stewarts later joined the suit.
Read the Daily Progress Friday for DeVasto's decision in the matter and more of the testimony from Monday's hearing.