By Jeffrey L. Boney (Houston Forward Times, NNPA Member)
Two separate counterfeit bill cases have gained national attention after the Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD) Police Department and the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s office opened investigations involving two young, African American students.
ABC 13, a local television station, reported that dozens of cases in the Houston-area involving “fake lunch line cash” over the last few years have helped to funnel students of color into the criminal justice system.
The first incident involved 13-year-old Danesiah Neal, an eighth grade African American student at Christa McAuliffe Middle School in FBISD, who became a target of the FBISD police after she went to pay for some chicken nuggets during her lunch period using a $2 bill her grandmother, Sharon Kay Joseph, had given her. The bill was printed in 1953. The government discontinued printing $2 bills in 1966, but brought them back into circulation in 1976.
As Danesiah proceeded to pay for her lunch with the $2 bill, the cafeteria worker on duty sensed that she was up to no good so she pulled out her counterfeit detection pen to determine whether the bill was real or fake. Because the bill was so old, the counterfeit detection pen did not work on it, prompting the cafeteria worker to contact the FBISD Police.
While still at school, Danesiah was detained by the FBISD police and told she was in trouble for attempting to pass a counterfeit bill. Confused and scared, Danesiah informed the police that her grandmother provided her with the bill and her grandmother was then contacted. Her grandmother confirmed that she had given Danesiah the bill, after she received it from a local store when she went to get change for a larger bill. After interviewing the grandmother, FBISD police went to the local store she mentioned to see if she was telling the truth. They then proceeded to go to a nearby bank to inquire about the bill, which is where they found out the $2 bill was in fact real. The FBISD police came back to the school, gave them back the $2 bill, and offered no apology for the misunderstanding.
Not only did Danesiah go through the inconvenience of not eating lunch that day, she also had to go through the embarrassment and erroneous scrutiny of being treated like a juvenile criminal.
No charges were filed against Danesiah, but that is not the case for students who have experienced similar incidents. Not only have those students faced forgery charges, they also could go to prison and be sentenced to anywhere from two to 10 years in prison.
The second incident is an example of how a student’s life can be turned upside-down and how they can find themselves caught up by law enforcement and in the judicial system because of this culture of attempting to crackdown on the alleged criminal activity of passing counterfeit bills that is allegedly running rampant across the district.
Fifteen year-old Alec Hunter, an African American student was charged with felony forgery, after he found $10 bill in the hallway at Elkins High School, and attempted to use it to buy a ham sandwich and some chips during lunch on November 4, 2015
Just before lunch, Alec and his friends were walking in the hallway when they noticed a bill on the floor and scrambled for it. Alec picked it up and went to the lunchroom and attempted to use the bill to buy some food. Upon selecting his food items to purchase, he gave the $10 bill to a cafeteria worker, who took the bill and used their counterfeit detection pen to see if it was real. The bill failed the test. The cafeteria worker then took the bill and turned it over to the FBISD police, who went directly to the Fort Bend County D.A. to have the young man charged with a felony. That is when the nightmare began. Two months later, Alec’s mother and father were made aware he was facing a felony forgery charge for passing a counterfeit bill.
Alec was instantly faced with allegations that he “engaged in delinquent conduct” and the reality that he was being formally charged with forgery and the “intent to defraud or harm another” in violation of Texas Penal Code, Subchapter B., Sec. 32.21.
According to local attorney Deron Harrington, he did a follow up to the news reporting that has been done on the counterfeiting issue and states that he came up with the following findings:
• Over a one-year period – the total money in question was only $152 and may have been only six incidents – which is hardly an epidemic by any measure.
• In every single situation – even when the suspect claimed they had no knowledge the money was counterfeit – every single time it was referred to the Fort Bend District Attorney for prosecution by the Fort Bend ISD police department.
• In every single incident – the suspect was African American.
The largest incident, a $100 bill, actually involved a FBISD employee apparently making change for a student.
According to the Fort Bend ISD organizational chart, the FBISD Police Department reports directly to Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Dr. Charles Dupree, which makes one wonder why the FBISD police decided to bypass Superintendent Dupree and go straight to the Fort Bend County D.A. to have charges filed against Alec. Alec and his family were livid and deeply concerned.
According to the family, the only contact they had prior to being made aware of the felony charge was from a FBISD police officer asking Alec to provide a formal statement, to which his mother said “no,” because there was not a parent or lawyer present. Alec’s parents tried desperately to get answers, and were getting nowhere, which is why they felt they had no other alternative, but to go public and make everyone aware of what was happening to their son.
“This hurts because my son takes his grades seriously and would never do anything to put his education or freedom in jeopardy,” said Louis. “The school district and the county never lost a dime, but yet they are treating my son as if he is a hardened criminal. If my son was a kid that was always a problem child, then I could see the response; but the worst thing on my son’s school record is that he lost his School ID card last year. Nothing more.”
Alec made his first appearance for a pre-trial juvenile court hearing on the third-degree felony forgery charges on May 2. He was surrounded by his father, mother and brother, as well as many concerned community citizens.
According to Louis Hunter, court officials encouraged his son to take a “deferred prosecution” deal, which is similar to a guilty plea.
“They want us to take this guilty plea deal, but we said, ‘no,’ because it involves some of probation that includes a 1st Time Offender’s Program for ‘at-risk’ youth and counseling,” said Hunter. “My son is an ‘A’ and ‘B’ student and has never been in trouble and I will fight for his name to not be tarnished. My son is not a criminal and I refuse to sit back and see him get treated like one.”
Alec is due back in court on Monday, May 23, but his family is hoping this ordeal is resolved sooner than that.
The Houston Forward Times will continue to follow this story.