They outnumbered her and were bigger and stronger.

The two girls asking questions made her feel small. In the past, they had made fun of her hair, her art and generally made her feel intimidated, she said.

“They kept pressuring me and asking me questions,” Englyn Spencer said. “They asked me ‘if I had a chance to target anyone in school, who would I target?’ I thought it was a joke.”

Spencer, a 14-year-old in Dickinson Independent School District, answered the question.

She thought it was over.

“I was in math when one of the assistant principals came in and asked me to get my stuff and come,” Spencer said. “They checked my backpack and did a pat-down and said three people heard me say it.”

Just like that, Spencer was sent to an alternative school and charged with a misdemeanor terroristic threat.

And those girls that asked her the question?

“They went to the office; they wrote statements saying I said that,” Spencer said. “I don’t even know what happened to them. I got put in alternative school because they said I did something really, really bad.”

Zero tolerance

Spencer maintains she was coerced into making the comment that got her in trouble. She would never have said it if the girls, which she says were bullies, hadn’t badgered her, she said. What she thought was an escape route was instead a trap neatly set by her tormentors, she said.

Taken at face value, Spencer’s story is an example of one of the numerous flaws many experts say exist in the zero-tolerance policies that began gaining traction in the 1990s in response to drugs and school shootings.

Zero tolerance policies, which have been used to address more than just bullying, prescribe set penalties and punishments for dealing with bullying and all students involved receive the same punishment.

“The argument is that zero-tolerance was more equitable,” said Judith Kafka, a professor at Baruch College in New York and an expert on the failures of zero-tolerance policies. “But studies are finding zero tolerance is enforced more strictly in schools with concentrated populations of kids of color. At schools with more white students, the principals are more flexible.”

By 1997, about 79 percent of school districts nationwide had some form of bullying zero-tolerance policy, according to a report by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization.

Justice upended

Kafka argues such policies often result in punishing the victim more than the perpetrators.

A famous case was that of Montana Lance, 9, a student in Lewisville, a suburban community north of Dallas, who killed himself at school after being bullied.

On the day Lance died, some bullies in the cafeteria pushed him into a pole, a child who witnessed the events said in a civil-court deposition.

Later, Lance was in the bathroom and told this child what happened and his frustration about what to do.

The boys were caught talking in the bathroom and sent to the principal’s office, the deposed child said.

While they were there, Montana Lance asked to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office, where he hanged himself.

The Lance family sued the Lewisville school district and lost. They appealed, but the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas affirmed the earlier ruling.

“The gut response to so many incidents of the bullying on social media is that this is an awful incident and we have to create harsh policies as a way of responding,” Kafka said.

Moved past it?

Several school districts in Galveston County now say they have moved past zero tolerance policies, for many of the same reasons Kafka and others have cited.

“I wouldn’t say we have a zero-tolerance policy,” said Leila Sarmecanic, general counsel for Clear Creek Independent School District. “It’s a behavior, not a person.”

Other school district officials agreed.

“We do not have a zero-tolerance policy because other factors are in play,” said Melissa Tortorici, spokeswoman for Texas City ISD. “We want students reporting incidents so that we can conduct investigations before a student feels like they have to take things into their own hands.”

Instead, county school districts are moving toward a more investigative process, officials said.

“We have a wide variety of disciplinary consequences that may be applied to each individual circumstance,” said Kelli Moulton, superintendent of Galveston ISD.

At Friendswood ISD, any district employee who receives a report of bullying has an obligation to notify a principal, said Dayna Owen, spokeswoman for the district.

From there, the principal or designee has to conduct an investigation into the allegations, Owen said, with a final report to be issued at the end of the investigation.

Several other school districts, including Texas City and Clear Creek ISDs, report similar processes.

“The investigation is done on the campus level by a campus administrator,” Sarmecanic said. “They let parents know what is going on and work to come up with a solution — not just stopping the behavior, but working on the underlying causes of the bullying.”

When a student makes a complaint in most area districts, the idea is that the investigation begins at a campus level and gradually moves its way first to administration and then the school district, said William “Bud” Collier, director of the nonprofit organization I’m Bully Free.

In the minds of experts, school policy that really does handle bullying instances on a case-by-case basis would be a welcome improvement.

In reality

Spencer’s treatment seems to contradict school districts’ reported move away from zero tolerance policies.

Before the day the girls came up to her in the hallway, Spencer had had multiple encounters with the same group.

“One time at a school carnival, I got a snow cone and got my hair sprayed,” Spencer said. “They came up and were making fun of my hair color and how it looked horrible. Then a big girl came up while I had the snow cone in my hand and pushed into me so that I dropped it. I had to go get the janitor.”

In instances such as Spencer’s, officials can be hamstrung in their response, according to Dickinson ISD’s assistant superintendent for administration.

“We have to follow the law,” Robert Cobb said. “We do not like it when things like this happen. Sometimes our hands are tied. There are not a whole lot of things we can do.”

Cobb contends that when officials suspect a law is broken, it is the district’s responsibility to alert authorities.

Texas law actually prohibits straight zero tolerance when it comes to bullying, Collier said.

Section 37 of the Texas Education Code “prohibits the imposition of a disciplinary measure on a student who, after an investigation, is found to be a victim of bullying, on the basis of that student’s use of reasonable self-defense in response to the bullying.”

“We did what Chapter 37 said and met with parents on three occasions,” Cobb said.

District criticism

School districts across the country have handled the shift away from zero-tolerance policies with varied degrees of effectiveness, Kafka said.

“Probably some districts are great and some aren’t based on who is lodging the complaint and how seriously it’s taken by the administration,” Kafka said.

The issue is that districts don’t always follow through with what the process is supposed to be, Collier said.

“Case-by-case is a nice way of saying I do what I want to depending on the kid,” Collier said.

Collier points to what he sees as numerous failings regarding zero tolerance in the area.

“I was in Houston a few years ago and went to the juvenile detention center and was talking to the probation officer,” he said. “He said that about 25 percent are in there because they defended themselves against bullies. They violated those kids’ rights.”

The problem, Collier said, is that the decks are stacked in districts’ favor when investigating incidents of bullying.

“You file a complaint with little guidance in a seven-day period,” Collier said. “Then, eventually, it goes to the school board, which is supposed to be unbiased. It’s not. They work for the school and have lawyers working for the school already planning against the complaint. The schools are determining the outcomes of the complaints.”

Several district officials disagreed with Collier’s assessment.

“When someone complains and the district ignores it, that is not beneficial,” Cobb said. “The problem schools have is that adults weren’t there.”

Potential solutions

“I think any policy that limits discretion, whether it’s the legal system or at a school level, necessarily constrains administrations in a way that works to kids’ detriments,” Kafka said. “Blanket policies run the risk of not being appropriate for certain situations.”

Collier, meanwhile, argues the solution lies more in holding administrators accountable.

“If there’s a crash at an airport, the person responsible for it is gone,” Collier said. “But 4,000 kids can kill or hurt themselves from being bullied and no one gets in trouble. Name a superintendent that has been fired for that reason. I don’t know of any. What’s the solution? An unbiased party listening to these cases.”

Matt deGrood: 409-683-5230; matthew.degrood@galvnews.com

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