An attempt by Republicans on the Fairfax County School Board to double the penalties for students who come to school under the influence of alcohol or drugs and refuse to participate in a formal assessment and treatment program failed last night when the board majority decided that it needs more study.

The board, on a 7 to 3 vote, referred to a committee proposal by member Mychele B. Brickner (At Large) to amend the students' rights and responsibilities regulations.

Under the current code of conduct, students who come to school under the influence are suspended for at least five days. The suspension becomes an excused absence if the student and parents agree to participate in a three-day county seminar and any follow-up activity designated by the school principal. If a student refuses, the five days of suspension become an unexcused absence, and the student receives failing grades for the quarter.

Brickner proposed including a requirement that the student participate in a more formalized assessment and subsequent follow-up treatment. If the student and parent refused, the suspension would be extended to 10 days.

Brickner and those who supported the amendment said they were frustrated that so few students continue with recommended follow-up treatment after the three-day seminar.

"We have students and their parents being told they are more heavily involved in drugs or alcohol and that they need more treatment and they don't do it," Brickner said. "This way, it's a hook to pull them into the treatment they need."

But a majority of board members said that Brickner's proposal -- which they had received only 24 hours before the meeting -- represented too substantial a change in board policy to be voted on without input from the school staff and the public. They said they feared that the tougher penalties might further discourage students from getting help.

They said the proposal also had numerous legal problems -- including questions as to whether the district could force student to seek treatment. And they said county officials need to be included in the discussion. For example, current treatment and assessment programs already have long waiting lists and are not accessible to students in all parts of the county. It is unclear what impact the proposed changes would have on the county's services.

They also said it would be unfair to punish students who might not have access to the services being mandated.

It was clear that the election season is in full swing as discussion on the proposal turned into a debate over which board members care more about the county's children. The tenor of the debate upset some board members.

"I really object to board members who imply that if you don't accept my motion tonight you don't care about children and aren't good people," board Chairman Robert E. Frye Sr. (At Large) said, referring to those who pushed Brickner's motion. "We all do care about children, but we have a duty to have a bit more review. To simply pass the motion tonight without carefully crafting it doesn't accomplish anything."