Rogers ISD denies grievance in ‘farm tool or illegal weapon’ case (TX)

“This is how activists are created” was a comment overheard as a crowd of about 50 gathered Thursday night at a Rogers ISD school board meeting for a public hearing and subsequent denial of a grievance filed by the parents of Logan Coufal, a Rogers High School student suspended from school and sentenced to a 20-day Disciplinary Alternative Education Placement (DAEP) for possession of a machete, a commonly-used farm tool deemed an “illegal knife” by Rogers school officials.

During a high school parking lot sweep, a drug dog “hit” identified a bottle of Zicam, an over-the-counter cold remedy two years past its expiration date, in Coufal’s truck.  Further searching of his vehicle, a farm truck shared by the high school junior and his father, revealed a machete used for clearing brush and other farm-related activities.

Hearings of this nature are generally closed sessions, but Coufal’s parents requested the public proceeding.  “I applaud Lisa and Terry Coufal for requesting a public meeting.  Parents who advocate for their children should receive fair consideration, should not be sworn to secret closed meeting agreements and should be assured no retaliation towards their child will result,” Connie Sadowski, an education consultant for the Red Apple Project and Austin CEO Foundation, said.  “Parents are vested stakeholders in the policies of their public schools. Parent’s money funds schools and they should be considered equal partners.”

This case raises troubling issues making public review of actions taken by this publicly-funded entity quite appropriate and strongly suggests a need for ongoing taxpayer vigilance.

At the hearing, Coufal family attorney Clyde Chandler addressed the suspension’s origins.  With the drug dog allegedly hitting on an expired over-the-counter medication, he contended that in a criminal proceeding, the search would have ended there.  He also challenged the school’s definition of an illegal weapon.  Using a Texas Penal Code definition cited in the Texas Education Code, Rogers ISD Superintendent Bob Callaghan defines an “illegal knife” as having a blade over 5 1/2″ and a hand instrument designed to cut or stab by being thrown.  The machete is reportedly 9 3/4″ and per Callaghan, “the blade is sharp enough to cut paper; and it has a serrated edge opposite the blade.”  No kidding – it’s generally sharp enough to cut through things like vines, sunflowers and other brush – by design!  Paper likely wouldn’t be a challenge.  And while machete tossing is a physical possibility, its use “by being thrown” isn’t highly practical or in any way suggested by the facts of this case.

Chandler reminded how the school is in danger of setting a precedent that any student whose vehicle contains a chain, tire tool or chainsaw can be considered a dangerous weapon.  He appealed to the board “do you have the courage to do what’s right?  Do you have the courage to use common sense?”

All involved agree Coufal harbored no criminal intent and posed no threat or danger to anyone.  His reputation as a good, conscientious and respectful student is also not in dispute.  Terming this case precedent setting and common sense, Chandler asked if this is how we are going to treat a student who has never been in trouble and brings honor to Rogers?

After Chandler’s presentation, Lisa Coufal read a letter sent by a family friend and university administrator to Rogers ISD Board President Ryan Sebek.  In addition to speaking of Coufal’s character and personal history, the letter noted:

“Sometimes as administrators, the easy thing to do is to stand behind policies and the initial interpretation we make of those policies at the time we make our decision. However, the thing we are paid to do and the thing we should do as ethical administrators who are truly concerned with serving our students and making our institutions better, is to make tough decisions. To make the decisions that are right for our students, even if it means admitting we made a mistake. In my nine years in higher education, I have yet to see a case that is purely black and white, but I refuse to enforce any policy that unfairly penalizes a student such as the one your administration has chosen to apply in this situation.”

Callaghan began his remarks describing the tough decision involved and calling Coufal a “good, hard-working young man.”  He then discussed five issues of contention – the drug dog’s initial alert, the search, the farm tool termed an “illegal knife,” the term “in possession” and the school’s discretionary powers – previously raised by the Coufal family.

He described the procedure involving the dog’s initial alert and the search.  The introduction of new information or evidence into the grievance process is expressly prohibited at the appeal level (as was clearly stated by Sebek at the hearing’s onset) and the point was not included in his prior formal response, but Callaghan nonetheless suggested potential ammunition residue on a jacket in the vehicle as another potential substance upon which the dog may have been reacting.

After reiterating his definitions of terms in question, Callaghan discussed his discretionary powers saying he would “like to express to the board, Logan and his family how I have agonized over this situation.”

The Rogers ISD Code of Conduct reflects Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code specifying that disciplinary actions, mandatory or discretionary, must take into consideration self-defense, intent or lack of intent at the time the student engaged in the conduct and a student’s disciplinary history.  At the time and since this incident, Coufal’s lack of criminal intent as well as that he posed no threat and had no disciplinary history has in no way been at issue.

Callaghan said Coufal’s DAEP placement over a Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Placement was his first discretionary act.  He said he has exercised discretion by ensuring the student’s discipline record would not be part of any public record nor would any disciplinary history be included in college transcripts.  After describing the DAEP placement timeframe based on differences between the Rogers and Academy ISD calendars (Academy ISD is home to the Bell County Alternative School campus) and accommodating Coufal’s concerns over finals, Callaghan closed saying he felt that “all factors were considered and appropriate discipline assigned.”

In rebuttal, Chandler said his clients disagree with many of Callaghan’s statements.  He cautioned how citizens need to understand the implications of going through the school complaint appeal process as “it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”  Acknowledging that Callaghan “did better for Logan than he had to,” Chandler in referring to the precedent-setting potential said “but every kid faces the same thing.”  Urging a use of common sense, he asked “are you going to stand up for the students?”

After a 25-minute deliberation, the five school board members present (two were absent) unanimously voted to deny the grievance and the requested remedies.

The education industry is part of the service industry.  Schools serve two basic customers – students by providing an education and taxpayers by theoretically providing quality educational services in an efficient, cost-effective manner.  A basic tenet of any service organization is to know your customer and understand its culture.  Rogers is a central Texas town of about 1,200 residents with a school district comprising less than 900 students.  It’s an agricultural community.  District administrators and school board members seemed unable or unwilling to integrate this orientation into their decision-making process thus creating legitimate concerns over responsiveness and accountability.

In first reacting to the suspension, Lisa Coufal described her son’s “farm kid” way of life and said ” I’m losing my faith in common sense. If we don’t stand up to this, who will?”  Many Rogers ISD students are “farm kids” – kids from an early age learning practical, marketable skills requiring hard work and discipline.  These skills offer great advantage ahead of many in today’s schools struggling with the prospect of future adult productivity and self-sufficiency.  With so many challenges facing today’s youth, one could think these attributes and skills would be respected and their attainment supported, but not evidently in Rogers ISD.

The district has set an interesting precedent largely limiting the discretion prescribed to it by law.  If followed, future students will likely be subject to onerous punishment for perhaps accidental or inopportune infractions.  If their parents contest such actions, new expenditures of time and financial resources will occur.  If not followed, the school opens itself up for legal liability in any failure to consistently apply school policies.  And all of these scenarios are at taxpayer expense.

Two-thirds of Texas school districts are suing Texas taxpayers over a lack of adequacy or equity in school funding.  Rogers ISD is one of those districts.  Texas taxpayers are responding with challenges over the districts’ efficiency.

Logan Coufal’s suspension case prompts concerns regarding the current administration’s understanding and responsiveness to Rogers’ local farming culture and to its general use of common sense in daily operations.  It also creates questions regarding school officials credibly applying school policies and efficiently using district resources.

Clyde Chandler challenged the school board:  “do you have the courage to do what’s right?  Do you have the courage to use common sense?  Are you going to stand up for the students?”  The board’s response – seen by many as a resounding “no” – will impact students and taxpayers.

Hopefully the upcoming May 11 election will bring some Rogers ISD school board members a new challenge.  Candidate filing opens Jan. 30.

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.

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