Parents Appeal Punishment of Students Who Drank Wine in France

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

The wine culture of France clashed with U.S. alcohol regulations this spring when a group of Dominion High School students took a school-sponsored trip to France. Now, a group of parents is asking the Loudoun County School Board to show some leniency.

At issue is an April trip that 24 French class students at Dominion took to Lyon and Paris, the two largest cities in France. According to parents, 10 students each received a 10-day suspension for violating the Loudoun school district's rules against alcohol consumption and possession.

Dominion Principal John Brewer confirmed that he suspended students for alcohol-related reasons. He declined to say how many students were disciplined or to go into details about the alleged offenses, saying that information on individual student cases is private.

The parents say that the suspended students, who range from 10th- to 12th graders, drank wine with their host families and at parties, received bottles as gifts from their hosts or purchased alcohol at stores.

In addition to the 10-day suspensions, the students had to take a three-day substance-abuse class, and those who played sports were kicked off their teams for the remainder of the semester. All three measures are the standard punishment for first-time violators of Loudoun's zero-tolerance alcohol policy.

Parents say that the policy is overly severe, and they question why the students weren't supervised more closely. Three chaperons, two of them staff members at Dominion, supervised the students on the trip, which included a mix of planned activities and flexible time to explore the two cities.

Loudoun school administrators have turned down the parents' appeals of the suspensions. Several of the parents are trying to get the School Board involved in the case and were planning to address the board at its meeting Tuesday night.

"A lot of these kids have been stigmatized, and I think it's totally over the top," said Jack Weber, the father of one of the students who was suspended. "This is not about poor parent supervision or anything else. You've got youngsters put into a very murky and somewhat ambiguous situation in a country like France, you're going to have a problem like this."

France is well known for its lenient attitude toward alcohol. Under French law, 16- and 17-year-olds can order beer and wine in bars and restaurants and can buy any kind of alcohol in retail stores. Even those rules are rarely enforced.

But school officials were clear about the district's alcohol policy in advance of the trip, Brewer said. He said that students knew they needed to follow Loudoun's rules, not France's.

"It's not my opinion that French culture drove them to do this," he said. "We have made as explicitly clear as possible that this was a school trip. It isn't any different from taking a trip to the zoo."

Colleges typically require students to report any suspensions on applications, although the infraction does not go on transcripts and is not communicated from a high school to a college admissions office in an official way, school officials said.

"We had kids who made a bad decision here," Brewer said. "I love them. This is a mistake that I want them to grow from. Nobody over there did something devastating to their future."

But parents said that the punishment was harsher than the crime.

"I think that zero-tolerance criminalizes kids," said Eileen Murdock, the mother of a junior who was kicked off the track team for the semester because of what Murdock described as "a single sip of alcohol."

"It was a really bad trip, both literally and figuratively," Murdock said.

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