Did you know that graffiti is the equivalent of a bomb threat?
I am not kidding with that title. In the Katy Independent School District, a 12-year-old student, Shelby Sendelbach, was given a very harsh punishment for writing the words "I Love Alex" in permanent baby blue marker on her school gym's wall. The district classified her act as a Level 4 infraction. What is a level 4 infraction? Well, in the eyes of the district, it ranks up there with terroristic threats. Meaning, she could have called in a bomb threat or brought a gun to school and received the same punishment. That punishment was a mandatory four-month assignment to an alternative school. Think about that for a moment. An innocent (yes, destructive, but not threatening) act of vandalism was seen as a terroristic threat. Did she write, "I will kill all teachers?" Not at all. She declared her preteen love for a boy named Alex. Pause and think this over. Terrorism. Writing on a wall. Bomb threat. Writing on a wall.
From the Chronicle's site Inside Katy, I read more about what in the world I could be misreading. Surely,this is a mistake!
After being called into the principal's office, Shelby was read her Miranda rights by the police and questioned. After being questioned, the punishment was decided that she would be kicked out of school for 4 months to attend an alternative school for students who have committed serious crimes and consistently misbehave or are in trouble the majority of the time. She also had criminal charges brought against her.
After this story appeared on the Houston Chronicle's Web site, it sparked a debate about whether it was appropriate for the Katy school district to punish Shelby Sendelbach the same as those who make terroristic threats, assaults and possess drugs.
A few days before school ended, the Mayde Creek Junior High School student gave in to an impulse to write a message on the wall near an area with a lot of prominent graffiti. Little did she know that because she wrote in permanent ink, the act is considered a felony under Texas law.
The case has become the topic of thought-provoking discussions in national online blogs and forums.
After reading up on the issue I came to find that:
In fact it’s the Texas legislature that ranks graffiti “right up there” — not just with the other three offenses, but above them.
Terroristic threat (which doesn’t involve terrorism), possession of dangerous drugs (which doesn’t involve dangerous drugs), and assault with bodily injury (which — this shouldn’t, at this point, surprise you — doesn’t involve bodily injury) are all misdemeanors. Grafitti at school is a state jail felony.
As is the case in a story like this, it did not take long for the national media to grab a hold of this story and share it with the (hopefully appalled) nation.
In Shelby's own words:
"I knew it was bad, but I never thought I would get caught," Sendelbach said on "Good Morning America" ... "The whole place, the bleachers and the walls, are all covered with graffiti. I just wanted to add to it and I didn't think it would do much harm."
How many of us have done something foolish as a junior high school student? How many of us get it treated like a felony? Few, I hope.
In a statement, the Katy school district defended its actions, saying, "It is always our practice to follow the law and policy while looking out for what is in the best interest of the individual student and the district as a whole."
State Senator Dan Patrick said that the legislature provides the school with discretion. Rather than use common sense and discretion they decided to hammer this girl with the harshest of punishments.
After a summer of legal battles, discussions and negotiations, a Katy school principal and the parents of Shelby have agreed to new terms of her punishment.
1. Write a letter of apology to the district's maintenance director, Greg Carver, to thank him for cleaning up the graffiti.
2. Make posters with the theme "Let's Keep Our School Clean" to hang in the gymnasium where she wrote her message in permanent ink and;
3. Bone up on state discipline laws and write Texas lawmakers explaining her case and asking them to better clarify discipline laws.
On one site, noting the ridiculous nature of this reaction to graffiti noted (tongue in cheek) that obviously it was terroristic threat.
After all, we all know “Alex” is actually code of Al Qaeda.
In the days of post 9/11 and after horrific events like Columbine and Virginia Tech, are we so paranoid that a girl professing her love for her boyfriend on a wall already covered in graffiti should be treated the same as someone who makes a bomb threat? Are we so afraid that there is zero tolerance for even the smallest of infractions?
Being a Mom to kids in the age group, you better believe I would ensure they are punished. However, for it to have gone so far, so fast is appalling. I am just thankful that someone in the district came to their senses and let this young lady off with a punishment that fits the crime.
This entire event should open up some serious discussions on what is a true threat and what is bad judgment on the part of a teenager. Please do not lump the student who makes a bomb threat into the same group as the girl who wrote on a wall. One can kill my child. The other can require a new paint job. Completely NOT the same playing field.
What do you think? Did Shelby finally get the punishment she should have been handed down in the first place or was the school right to treat this young lady as a terroristic threat?
~Jennifer is going to go hide all of her permanent markers now. Just in case.~
Oh, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am a product of the Katy ISD school system. And, no, I was never arrested, put in alternative school or been punished for anything more severe than saying "hell" to another student.