Critics decry drug charges against HISD teachers
As several employees await court hearings, opponents complain some allegations after campus searches lack common sense
By ERICKA MELLON
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Feb. 3, 2009, 9:38PM
Blogging Houston-area education
More than a dozen Houston school district employees are getting a lesson in the zero-tolerance policies typically applied to students as they await court hearings on drug charges that could land them in jail.
While most of the teachers are charged with possessing pot in their cars at school, a few face time behind bars after police said they found unauthorized prescription drugs in their vehicles.
Some of the charges, particularly those involving prescription pills, are drawing criticism from lawyers, parents and teachers who say the Houston Independent School District and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office need a lesson in discretion.
Norm Uhl, an HISD spokesman, said the district is treating employees as it would students — arresting them for having drugs on campus and leaving it up to prosecutors to file charges.
“We do have discretion to accept charges or not accept charges, but as officers of the court, it’s our duty to see that justice is done,” said Donna Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office. “And if an officer calls us with a valid charge and probable cause, then we should accept that charge unless there is some extenuating circumstance.
“We don’t discriminate based on whether somebody is a teacher or not.”
If a teacher — or any person — can show proof of a valid prescription, then they shouldn’t be in trouble with the law, Hawkins added.
Dogs sent to schools
For example, she said, the district attorney's office filed a motion to dismiss a drug charge against an HISD food service worker after he was able to produce a prescription.
Tom Shahriari, an attorney-turned-HISD elementary school teacher, called the district’s ongoing drug searches “a very wide and very destructive dragnet.”
In December, Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra ordered his police department to take drug-sniffing dogs to every employee parking lot. His order for the widespread sweep came after anonymous tips to HISD police led to drug arrests of 15 employees — two of them twice — from eight different campuses.
“I don’t have a problem with using the drug dogs,” said Shahriari, a fifth-grade teacher at Roberts Elementary. “What I have a problem with is using the zero-tolerance laws to make it zero compassion and zero common sense.”
One of Shahriari’s colleagues, a 59-year-old art teacher named Melinda Herrick, is suspended from the school and charged with drug possession in a drug-free zone. Herrick’s attorney, Kent Schaffer, said the former Teacher of the Year award recipient is accused of having two Xanax pills, typically prescribed for panic disorder, in her car.
“It wasn’t hers,” said Schaffer, who expects the grand jury to no-bill his client, meaning the case would be dropped.
District treated all equally
In the meantime, some parents at the school have launched a fundraising campaign to cover Herrick’s legal expenses. Roxanne van Ravenswaay, who is president of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization has a message for Saavedra.
“I understand his need to make sure he provides a safe environment for the children,” said the mother of two. “But if he is a man of honor and realizes mistakes have been made, then he should do everything he can to make sure he rectifies this.”
Uhl, the HISD spokesman, said the district treated all employees equally.
HISD’s new police chief, Jimmie Dotson, said he has not had a chance to review the drug-dog searches. His first day on the job was Monday. “I cannot make a commitment whether they’re going to continue or not,” he said.
Houston attorney James Fallon, who is representing several of the charged HISD employees, said police did not investigate thoroughly before making arrests. For example, he said, the prescription drugs found in the car driven by one of his clients belonged to his deceased father. Fallon said LeDarien Strauss, a 26-year-old special education teacher at Yates High School, was driving the car registered in his father’s name because his own car was being repaired.
“He’s the sweetest, kindest guy you’d ever meet,” said Fallon, the son of Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon. “He’s not popping pills and then going to work.”
In another case, Hazel Jackson, a 59-year-old special education teacher at Woodson Middle School, is accused of having unauthorized blood pressure or cholesterol medicine, according to her attorney, Chris Tritico. He said she didn’t know the pills were there but thinks they belong to a friend.
“The worst thing that could have happened had she taken that medication is she would have had good cholesterol,” he said.
Tritico and Fallon said their biggest concern is that the employees could lose their jobs and licenses to teach even if they are not convicted.