Martin High grad will keep fighting zero-tolerance-policy case despite latest setback

ARLINGTON -- An appeals court judge has ruled against a 2000 Martin High School graduate who sued the Arlington school district over its zero-tolerance policy, but a lawyer for the man said this week that he doesn't intend to quit fighting.

"It's not over," said Mike Barragan, an attorney for the former student, Matthew Hinterlong. "I'm going to file a motion for rehearing with the Fort Worth Court of Appeals this week and try to get them to reconsider. If that doesn't work, then we'll file a petition with the Texas Supreme Court."

Hinterlong was a senior at Martin when school officials, acting on a tip from the district Crime Stoppers program, searched his Chevy Blazer and found a water bottle containing about a thimbleful of what appeared to be alcohol, according to court records. Hinterlong claimed the bottle had been planted in his car and he had no knowledge of it.

Under the district's zero-tolerance policy in place at the time, he was sent to the district's Turning Point High School, an alternative school for students with discipline issues, for the fall semester.

He returned to Martin in spring 2000, graduated and went on to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, his attorney said.

Due-process rights

He sued the district, saying that his due-process rights had been violated.

Barragan said it was a matter of principle for the family. Hinterlong was acquitted of the minor-in-possession charge because prosecutors didn't prove the substance in the water bottle was alcohol, his attorney said.

The civil case took years to get through the system because of several factors, including a fight to get information about the tipster who alerted authorities, Barragan said.

The case went to trial in May 2008 and the district won. In a Feb. 11 ruling, 2nd District Court of Appeals Justice Sue Walker affirmed that decision. She based her finding on testimony from then-Superintendent Mac Bernd. Bernd said he told Hinterlong he would overturn the expulsion if Hinterlong provided analysis of the substance that said it wasn't alcohol, polygraph results showing he didn't know about the bottle, and/or a witness that saw the alcohol being planted.

"Because AISD provided an escape mechanism in lieu of strict application of the zero tolerance policy ... Hinterlong's as applied due process challenge must fail," Walker wrote.

Policy tossed out

Barragan said he doesn't believe that the testimony in the case warrants such a ruling.

Arlington has since done away with its zero-tolerance policy.

Barragan said Hinterlong's experience is an example of the harmful effects of such policies and why reform was needed.

The Texas Legislature passed a law that went into effect in September that requires districts to consider extenuating circumstances like lack of intent and students' disciplinary histories in decisions on zero-tolerance violations.

Hinterlong is asking for attorney's fees and court costs, plus whatever damages a court would determine.

"He went through a lot, and it was a pretty traumatic experience for him," Barragan said. "It ruined his senior year in high school, and it caused a lot of embarrassment for him."

TRACI SHURLEY, 817-390-7641