A Fairfax County task force last night proposed ways for toughening and broadening the county's war on drugs and alcohol in the public schools and estimated that "anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of students" take the substances during school hours.
The task force of teachers, parents and other citizens, created by County School Superintendent William Burkholder, made 29 recommendations, including automatic five-day suspensions for first-time drug or alcohol offenses, banning consumption of all beverages in classrooms and enlisting school custodial staff and bus drivers in the campaign against what has become known as "substance abuse."
The proposals also include substantial reductions in unexcused absences that would mean students suspended for drug abuse would automatically fail their courses for a quarter unless they agreed to participate in a treatment or counseling program. Other recommendations are for stricter enforcement of attendance policies and "to explore the feasibility of using undercover agents in the schools."
Like many school systems nationwide, Fairfax County's for years has made combating drug and alcohol use in public schools a priority, but in recent months in Fairfax there has been heightened awareness of the problem.
This month Burkholder brought student athletes before a gathering of school officials and parents to relate how widespread and serious the problem has become among their peers. Last night, one task force member told of seeing "the girl in the school play walking down the hall drinking alcohol from a Slurpee cup."
Burkholder said last night that while the problem is considerable, it must not be exaggerated. "Everything is relative. I would not say that we have a greater. . .problem than other school systems. Principals tell me that our problem with drugs is not as great as it once was, but the problem with alcohol is definitely on the increase."
Last night's meeting was described as a work session, after which Burkholder must study the proposals and present those he deems workable to the school board for consideration later this year.
Several board members expressed some reservation about the scope, cost and legality of some of the proposals. "It would be very good if we received an analysis of . . . the impact on rights of students and employes," said board member Gerald A. Fill.
Others questioned the practicality of forcing parents or children to participate in a drug treatment program. And the prospect of large numbers of expelled students was also worrisome. One board member cautioned, "We might be forced to an alternative mode of providing instruction to students" who are no longer eligible for attendance.
Newly elected Board Chairman Mary E. Collier asked what if any way there was of assessing the effectiveness of the county's current drug awareness program, "whether it is really worth it to teach them all about drugs. . . . "
For the most part, the evening was characterized by parents and teachers urging harsher medicine on a more cautious school board; board member Fill agreed by night's end that "We don't want to go about this halfheartedly."
Task force members by and large were adamant. "Sometimes you have to be harsh," said high school principal Dorothy Duncan.