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'Limeade' Packs a Punch

Staff Slip Gives Liquor to Children at Alexandria Private School

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; Page B01

It was not the sort of letter a school delights in sending home to its families.

"Dear Third, Fourth, and Fifth Grade Parents:

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"It is with great regret that I tell you that your child may have been exposed to alcohol today at lunch," said the missive signed by Alexander Harvey IV, head of the private Alexandria Country Day School.

It was tequila and margarita mix, to be precise, left in the refrigerator in a pitcher and mistaken for limeade by kitchen staff, who poured it into small cups and served it to children as a lunch treat, he wrote.

Some youngsters didn't like the smell and declined; others took a sip and declared it "gross," according to parents and Harvey.

An administrator who realized something was wrong started investigating, Harvey said, and quickly discovered that the limeade was really liquor -- although it is unclear why the kitchen staff didn't notice. It had been left over, he said, from a party two days earlier at the school for the staff, faculty and Board of Trustees.

The cups were collected, teachers were told and students were observed for any ill effects. There were none, Harvey said; the most any child took was believed to be a few sips because no cup was close to being emptied. The episode, he said, left him mortified.

"I am embarrassed and deeply sorry that this happened," Harvey wrote in the letter, adding that liquor was immediately banned on campus -- a policy already set at many schools -- and that all future faculty parties would be off school grounds. He also spoke with staff about health issues involved with serving children food or drink from open containers.

Alexandria police spokeswoman Amy Bertsch said nobody informed the police. Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel said that "while it's true procuring alcohol for someone under the legal age of 21 is illegal," the incident would not rise to the level of criminal conduct because the kitchen staff members did not know they were serving alcohol. He said it sounded like "an innocent mistake."

Harvey told parents in the letter that everybody in the school, with 240 students from kindergarten through eighth grade who pay tuition from $14,200 to $15,600, was informed the same day, Sept. 10.

"We ask the students to be honest and admit their mistakes, and we should do the same," the letter said.

Parents learned about the episode that day when their children came home talking about it and carrying Harvey's letter.

Bill Paxson, a former U.S. congressman who has two children at the school, said yesterday that his third-grader was "very excited about it."

"Her words were, 'Something really fun and illegal happened today at school.' Then she proceeded to say what happened. She said it was gross and disgusting stuff. . . . She said she tasted it and it was so disgusting she couldn't drink it."

Paxson said he was pleased with the school's reaction.

"They handled it in a textbook way," he said.

Kim McKernan, vice president of the Parent-Teacher League, said yesterday that she heard parents praising Harvey for addressing the situation "so quickly and honestly" and that nobody she knew had questioned why the staff did not realize alcohol was being served.

Harvey said he received no complaints from parents.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company