Lunchroom Lunacy: ISD cops investigate $2 bill spent on school lunch

Friday, April 29, 2016
Ted Oberg Investigates
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Ted Oberg examines police reports that deal with lunch line forgery.

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- When you think of felony forgery your thoughts might turn to Al Capone or Bonnie and Clyde shooting it out with the Texas Rangers.

Not for some local school cops. For one day, public enemy number one when it came to forgery was 13-year-old eighth grader Danesiah Neal at Fort Bend Independent School District's Christa McAuliffe Middle School.

Now 14, Daneisha was hoping to eat that day's lunch of chicken tenders with her classmates using a $2 bill given to her by her grandmother when she was stopped by the long arm of the law.

"I went to the lunch line and they said my $2 bill was fake," Danesiah told Ted Oberg Investigates. "They gave it to the police. Then they sent me to the police office. A police officer said I could be in big trouble."

Not just big trouble. Third-degree felony trouble.

And that's just one of eight counterfeiting charges investigated against high- and middle-school students at Fort Bend ISD since the 2013-2014 school year.

School officials called Daneisha's grandmother Sharon Kay Joseph.

"She's never in trouble, so I was nervous going in there," she recalled to abc13.

The officials asked, "'Did you give Danesiah a $2 bill for lunch?' He told me it was fake," she said.

Then the Fort Bend ISD police investigated the $2 bill with the vigor of an episode of Dragnet, even though at that school 82-percent of kids are poor enough to get free or reduced price lunch.

The alleged theft of $2 worth of chicken tenders led a campus officer -- average salary $45,000 a year -- to the convenience store that gave grandma the $2 bill.

Next stop -- and these are just the facts -- the cop went to a bank to examine the bill.

Finally, the mystery was solved: The $2 bill wasn't a fake at all. It was real.

The bill so old, dating back to 1953, the school's counterfeit pen didn't work on it.

"He brought me my two dollar bill back," Joseph said. He didn't apologize. He should have and the school should have because they pulled Danesiah out of lunch and she didn't eat lunch that day because they took her money."

Joseph said something needs to change so kids don't have felonies looming over their heads for minor crimes -- or actions that aren't even crimes at all.

"It was very outrageous for them to do it," she said. "There was no need for police involvement. They're charging kids like they're adults now."

Ultimately, no charges were filed. But plenty of times, they are. Not just at local ISD's but across the state.

"For us at Fort Bend ISD Police, arrest is a last resort," Fort Bend ISD Chief David Rider told abc13.

Ted Oberg Investigates examined police reports between the 2013-14 school year and 2016 dealing with lunch line forgery from Houston ISD, Fort Bend ISD & Cy-Fair ISD.

In all there were 40 cases. Cy-Fair had the most, Houston ISD the least. Only Fort Bend ISD police were willing to talk about it. Cy-Fair responded with an email saying, " CFISD is aware of the disproportionate placement of minority students nationally," but refused to to make its police chief available.. HISD declined comment.

Not every case results in an arrest. In fact, many are declined by the district attorney, but all have been investigated by police. In many cases that results in a student being sent to alternative school while the case is being investigated.

That, advocates say, is punishment in itself.

See the Cy-Fair ISD forgery police reports here

See the Fort Bend ISD forgery police reports here

See the Houston ISD forgery police reports here

The crime is forgery - a third-degree felony in Texas. If found guilty, students could be sentenced to two to 10 years in prison. The Harris County DA's office says most would be given probation but this is still a felony arrest and/or conviction that has to be reported for a lifetime.

Juveniles can seek to have their records expunged -- but there is no guarantee.

There is concerning outlier when examining the statistics. Ted Oberg Investigates could not find a single white student suspect in these documents. There is one in Cy-Fair, but he is 27 years old and not a student. All the rest were largely black and to a lesser extent, Hispanic.

No district wanted to weigh in on why that was.

"We see a disproportionate impact on minority youth when it comes to these charges," attorney Mani Nezami said. "African-American and Hispanic boys in particular, but girls as well, tend to be overcriminalized for offenses that one might speculate if they weren't, they wouldn't be seeing a criminal charge."

It's unclear if all the students tagged for forgery are minorities. In the 29 pages of Cy-Fair ISD police records, abc13 found five students investigated who were listed as black, three students investigated listed as Hispanic, another whose race was listed as "E." There are 15 reports with no race listed.

Investigating student forgeries for using small bill in a lunch line does not appear to be letting up.

Nezami represents a 13-year-old Cy-Fair ISD Cook Middle School student facing two to 10 years in a Texas prison for passing off what turned out to be a fake $10 bill.

It looks real, and his parents say it felt real.

"The friend pulls out a $10 bill and his friend thinks that it's real," Nezami said. "So they get to the lunch line... he buys his lunch with it, takes his lunch and goes and eats it."

After school, officials did the forgery test and realized it was a fake $10 bill, according to Nezami.

"He comes to school the next day and he gets arrested and charged with a third-degree felony." Nezami said. "He's in seventh grade. He doesn't handle money that much."

"They put him in handcuffs," he said. "They put him in a police car, the whole bit."

His parents even offered to pay the $10 that was owed the school.

The 13-year-old even qualifies for free lunch from the school.

He's never been in trouble and reliably gets A's and B's in class.

He was charged with a felony and sent to alternative school before being found guilty of anything.

His case is still pending.

"He could face years in jail or prison," Nezami said.