The Alexandria School Board is starting a pilot program designed to give students who have committed drug or alcohol offenses an alternative to suspension.

"This will give us a chance to help the kids and keep them in the classroom," said Robert A. Hanley, principal of T. C. Williams, the city's only high school.

Starting next week, students at T. C. Williams and at the city's two junior high schools who are caught smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol will have a choice of attending a four-day drug-alcohol seminar after school or being suspended for five days.

Pat McKeon, student body president at T. C. Williams, welcomes the effort to help students with their problems.

"I think it is a good idea," McKeon said. "When the students are caught with pot or alcohol and (are) suspended, they get very far behind in their work."

Under current policy, any student found with drugs or alcohol was immediately suspended for five days.

From a student's point of view, McKeon claims that being caught with marijuana or alcohol is not a "black mark or a status symbol. It's just a fact of life."

But to school officials, the growing number of drug and alcohol offenses in city schools is a burgeoning problem.

While the adoption of the program is being applauded by school officials and students, members of the PTA at F. C. Hammond Junior High say they believe the school board should not have started the program without giving the concept further study. However, PTA secretary J. O. Sullivan said the group objects to only one part of the program. "We wanted mandatory counseling so that the students don't have a choice (about taking the suspension," he said.

There are two parts to the program: one for students who commit drug or alcohol offenses and another for students caught smoking tobacco.

Under the drug and alcohol guidelines, students would have the option of attending the seminar after the first or second offense. A third offense, however, would mean a mandatory 10-day suspension with a recommendation for expulsion being sent to the school board.

Under the tobacco guidelines, first offenses would carry a reprimand and parenets would be notified of the problem. Second offenses would carry a two-day detention notice and a parent conference. For third offenses, students would be required to attend the drug-alcohol seminar or be suspended for five days.