11-year-old Timothy Murray in front of fall foliage under text reading, "Happy Thanksgiving"
Timothy Murray celebrates Thanksgiving at his new school, Canales Elementary. (Courtesy of Nadia Rincon)

Prosecutors Won’t Drop Charges Against Brownsville ISD Honor Student

Timothy Murray was put in solitary confinement after reporting Principal Myrta Garza for bullying.


Editor’s Note: In February 2024, a judge dismissed all charges against Timothy. Read our update or click here to read our previous reporting about Timothy Murray’s ordeal.

After the Texas Observer first reported last month that 11-year-old Timothy Murray was arrested by the Brownsville Independent School District police and detained in solitary confinement just days after he reported being bullied by his school principal, Myrta Garza, Timothy’s mother Nadia Rincon had hoped prosecutors would drop the charges against her son. 

But during a status hearing today, Cameron County Assistant District Attorney Rene Garza made it clear the office is hell-bent on building a criminal case against Timothy, asking for more time to gather evidence after school administrators who previously worked under Garza filed another criminal charge against the student earlier this month. 

Cameron County District Attorney Rene Garza
Cameron County Assistant District Attorney Rene Garza (Courtesy of the State Bar of Texas)

“We’ve got an overzealous prosecutor who, regardless of what the facts or lack of facts there may be, made decisions that have proven to be more harmful than anything else time and time again,” said Sara Stapleton-Barrera, who is now Timothy’s attorney. 

Garza did not immediately respond to the Observer’s request for comment. We will update this story if he does.

Judge Adela Kowalski-Garza scheduled another hearing for February 14 but granted permission to Rincon for Timothy to be homeschooled. 

“He’s not safe in this district,” Rincon said.  

A week ago on December 5, school administrators who had worked under Garza while she was principal at Canales Elementary had the district police file a report charging Timothy with aggravated assault. For the second time, school administrators seized a chance to use police actions to punish the fifth-grader. Rincon’s repeated appeals to the district and even the state education agency have gone unanswered.

Despite the recent incident, Timothy says he’s been thriving at his new school, Canales Elementary in the Victoria Gardens neighborhood of Brownsville. Since he transferred there from Palm Grove in mid-September, he’s been making straight As, competing in the University Interscholastic League chess competitions, and in the Battle of the Books contest. For Battle of the Books, he was required to memorize the details from four fiction books and answer 100 questions about them. He proudly told me he got 98 out of 100 correct. 

“I made a new start here. I’m getting 90s to 100s. And people like me. I’ve made friends,” Timothy said. 

But Garza remains in her position as principal at Palm Grove Elementary School; her ties in the district run deep. Her mother, Rachel Ayala, served as area superintendent for 45 years. At Canales Elementary, she served as principal for four years, from 2018 to 2023, before she was removed by then-district superintendent Rene Gutierrez, who targeted the school, saying it needed improvement. 

A day before Assistant Principal Gabriel Rodriguez, who previously worked under Garza, had a Brownsville ISD police officer file a report charging Timothy with aggravated assault, another student reported to Principal Patricia Chacon that Timothy pulled his hair and tried to cut his finger with scissors. Timothy said Chacon brought both boys into her office and told the students she would report the incident to their parents. Timothy apologized for pulling the student’s hair but clarified he had pretended to cut the student’s paper and was not aiming for his finger.  Chacon later informed Rincon that the student later retracted his accusation when school administrators called his parents. But the district police still filed the report thereafter.  

Timothy thought the matter had been resolved until he was pulled out of lunch the next day and into a meeting with Assistant Principal Gabriel Rodriguez. 

“It looked like most of the administration was there except for the people I trusted. Then the police officer came in, and he started touching his handcuffs,” Timothy said. “I kinda panicked and said, ‘I will not continue this conversation without my mother present.’” 

Timothy said Rodriguez “clammed up” after and released him back to lunch. But he no longer felt safe at his new school. 

“I didn’t think it was a good idea to stay, so I asked one of the teachers during lunch to go back to the office and to call my mother to pick me up.” 

Rincon was not the first parent to complain about Garza’s retaliatory behavior. After the Observer first reported what happened to Timothy, other parents reached out to us to share their stories.

Palm Grove Elementary School Principal Myrta Garza
Palm Grove Elementary School Principal Myrta Garza (Palm Grove Elementary School)

Parent Andrea Ramos told the Observer that on November 18, 2021, Garza called Child Protective Services (CPS) to investigate her after a tense meeting with the principal to discuss her child’s need for special accommodation services. According to Ramos, her mother, who is a special education supervisor for another school district, had challenged Garza on the education goals the principal set for her then-5-year-old grandson with autism, which included knowing mental math and getting ready for state standardized testing. 

“About 24 to 48 hours after that meeting, I got a knock on my door from CPS, saying I was neglecting my child,” Ramos said. 

The investigation lasted a week and was dismissed after no signs of neglect were found. But Ramos said the incident left her with trauma. To this day, she still jumps at the sound of a door knock and won’t answer her phone or door if she doesn’t know who it is. 

“They still made me take parenting classes. And even after they didn’t find anything, they threatened that if the school ever called CPS again, they would take my child away,” Ramos said. Right after the incident, Ramos transferred her child from Canales Elementary to another school. 

Parent Mayra Gomez also transferred her child from Canales Elementary while Garza was principal there. In early April of 2022, a student kicked Gomez’s son in the face, and when he complained of pain, P.E. teachers told him to keep on playing. Gomez said she didn’t receive any notification from the school and only heard about the incident from her son after school. A few days later, the same student grabbed her son’s genitals. She called and emailed Garza multiple times before getting a call back. 

Gomez criticized the principal for failing to notify her and get back to her more promptly. “At that point, she got very aggressive. She just told me, ‘You’re not gonna call me at my school and tell me how to do my job. If you don’t like how I run this school, then get your kid out and send them somewhere else.’” 

According to Gomez, Garza changed her tone after she complained to district board members. During a meeting that followed, the principal and board members promised the two boys would not be in the same classroom. But it wasn’t until two weeks later, when the student grabbed her son’s genitals again, that Garza acted to change his class. By that time, Gomez had decided to take her son out of the school. 

“I just feel like they’re all trying to cover for each other. And in the process, they’re neglecting the kids,” Gomez said. 

Parent Jennifer Vasquez said she was relieved when Garza left Canales Elementary, where her daughter attends. She described seeing Garza often scream at parents and students. 

“A lot of parents don’t know where to report problems or where to go, so they don’t say anything,” Vasquez said  “[Garza] has a lot of people to back her up. She has people in high places. So I guess she can basically do whatever she wants and she receives no consequences for it. But how are we going to trust a person like this with our kids?” 

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In response to the Observer’s public records request for all parent complaints against Garza, Brownsville ISD reported they did not find any even though Ramos, Gomez, and Vasquez all told the Observer they had filed complaints against the principal with district board members. 

Rincon said she was never notified that her son was being questioned by Canales school administrators and district police. It wasn’t until three hours later, around 4 p.m., after the school day had already ended, that Principal Patricia Chacon called her. Chacon was not at the meeting and told Rincon she did not know the meeting was happening at the time. She informed Rincon the police had filed a report charging Timothy for aggravated assault.

“How is it possible that you interrogated Timothy and filed a police report without me being present?” Rincon asked Dolores Emerson, executive director of elementary education for the district. “And then she told me they had the authority to do this without any parents there.”

Texas Education Code 37.115 requires school administrators to conduct a fact-based, systemic behavioral threat assessment to determine if there is an imminent threat warranting a referral to law enforcement. Under state law, schools are not held to the same requirements when pursuing other charges beyond terroristic threat. Before engaging law enforcement in pursuing a terroristic threat charge, the statute states, “The team must notify the parent of or person standing in parental relation to the student regarding the assessment. In conducting the assessment, the team shall provide an opportunity for the parent or person to: participate in the assessment, either in person or remotely; and submit to the team information regarding the student.” After completing the assessment, school administrators are required to provide parents with a report of their findings. 

“Parents have a right to be involved if a child is being considered for a threat assessment. The law should be posted on every entrance of a school in the lobby so that parents are aware of their rights,” said state Representative Penny Morales Shaw, who cosponsored the legislation requiring parental involvement. 

But what recourse do parents like Rincon have when they feel their rights have been repeatedly flouted? 

Especially after the state passed a new law requiring all schools to have armed guards, Renuka Rege, education justice policy advisor at the advocacy group Texas Appleseed, says there needs to be stronger state enforcement and oversight to make sure districts comply with the laws that protect both parents’ and students’ rights against excessive and arbitrary police actions in schools. 

“[The Texas Education Agency (TEA)] has not had very strong oversight of threat assessment implementation thus far,” Rege said. “If parents feel their rights have been violated they can follow their school district’s complaint or grievance process, which districts are supposed to have, or they can try to file a complaint with TEA, but these often have not led to real recourse for families.”

After the district repeatedly ignored Rincon’s requests to review any investigative reports on her son, she filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency, which referred the matter back to the district. In an October 4 letter from the state agency reviewed by the Observer, Jurisdiction Review Manager Naomi Roach wrote, “After further review, the agency has determined that you should pursue this matter through the school district’s local grievance process.” 

The day after the Observer reported what happened to Timothy, Brownsville ISD released a public statement stating, “Rest assured that we are committed to transparency and accountability. We will conduct a comprehensive review of the situation and take any necessary actions based on the findings of our ongoing investigation.” 

But the district still has not provided Rincon with copies of their threat assessment findings, if there was one conducted, from Timothy’s first arrest. The district said it was asking the attorney general for a ruling on the Observer‘s inquiries about the report. Media relations officer Jason Moody did not immediately respond to the Observer’s request for comment. We will update this story if he does. After this story was published, board member Denise Garza responded to Rincon’s complaint stating interim Superintendent Jesus Chavez is “looking into this concern.”

Fernando de Urioste at the civil rights Cirkiel Law Group told the Observer, “In our experience, investigations aren’t being done. And the investigations that are done are often after-the-fact. They go back and reconstruct an investigation. They’re just saying, ‘Well, we met our minimum compliance. It doesn’t matter whether the threat assessment makes any sense. We can say we did one.’”

Local podcaster and former Brownsville ISD board member Erasmo Castro says the school district “protects their own. They are not looking for what is in the best interest of the staff, teachers, parents, or students.”

Castro adds that the district is “trigger happy” when it comes to using law enforcement on its students. In a city where a quarter of families live below the poverty line, Castro said, “There’s no consideration in the district for what the blowback will be in regards to a student’s life or future.” 

Based on an analysis of district juvenile justice referral data we received from Brownsville ISD, the district police made 3,102 student arrests over a period of roughly two and half years from May 2021 to November 2023. That’s 135 arrests per month in the school year.  Fifty-nine percent of those arrests were for felony changes. 

Of those arrests, 3.5 percent were for elementary school-aged children. From the beginning of the prior school year to November 3 this year, there have been 76 arrests of students 10 to 11 years old. Charges for terroristic threats accounted for 20 percent of those arrests. Most, 66 percent, were felony charges. There were no charges for aggravated assault for this age group. 

“A lot of times young kids don’t even really understand what’s happening. It’s a terrifying process when you go with the police and then have to be detained and then go to court. All these things result in a lot of fear and trauma down the line.”

Rincon said she’s noticed that leading up to the hearing, Timothy has been more anxious, moving constantly, and hitting his legs. She’s on the waitlist for behavioral therapists. But now, she’s concerned that any action her son makes may be another chance for school administrators to take police action against Timothy. 

“I’m very worried because I see that when Timothy gets nervous, he moves around too much; and if he’s sitting next to another kid, maybe they will feel intimidated. I’m worried he could be arrested at any time,” Rincon said.  

Rincon said she can’t trust the school district to do what’s right anymore. So she’s been considering moving back to Uvalde to have Timothy attend the public schools there. For now, she’s planning to have him homeschooled while his case is pending. Timothy, on the other hand, seems more concerned about his academic progress. He says he doesn’t want to change schools and “start all over again.” 

“They are putting so much effort in to damage my family and won’t let us move on,” Rincon said.

In the meantime, Rincon has been sitting in Timothy’s classroom to make sure her son is safe.

An earlier version of this story stated Rene Garza is the District Attorney of Cameron County. He is the Assistant District Attorney. The story has also been updated to distinguish a school’s requirement when pursuing a terroristic threat charge and other criminal charges.