As schools grapple with how to deter underage drinking at prom and other events, some elected officials and parents in Montgomery County are urging tougher punishments for students when they are caught, such as limiting their involvement in school activities or barring them from graduation ceremonies.
They have looked to neighboring Fairfax County, Va., where those found using alcohol or drugs at school events face suspension from athletic teams, clubs and other activities for 30 days for a first offense. They also have eyed policies in Anne Arundel County, where drug and alcohol violations during the weeks before graduation mean students lose their chance to attend commencement and other senior events.
“I think we need to send a serious message to kids that alcohol and drug use is serious, and there will be serious consequences,” said Philip Kauffman, a Montgomery School Board member who described the county’s approach as “broken.”
Such concerns follow an uproar this year at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (B-CC), after the school’s principal warned that seniors who drank on prom night would be barred from commencement. When Principal Donna Redmond Jones disciplined six students, the district’s interim superintendent, Larry Bowers, overturned her graduation ban, citing circumstances and school board policy. Parents were stunned.
In the weeks since, many in Montgomery have pointed to inconsistencies in how rules about drinking and drugs are applied in the district’s 25 high schools. They say the school system needs to do more to educate students, engage the community and clarify disciplinary consequences.
The reality of the consequences of teen drinking has been stark in Montgomery, where at least three teenagers have died in alcohol-related crashes in less than two years. A year ago, two members of Rockville’s Wootton High School graduating class were killed in a crash after they left a party where underage drinking was going on.
“We hold our breath every year, but it’s like Groundhog Day,” school board member Patricia O’Neill said. “I really believe we need a strict approach, and I don’t see it as all about punishment. I see it as hopefully saving some kids’ lives.”
O’Neill initiated a review of policies in June. Board members on her committee pored over the district’s documents detailing the practices last week, discussed approaches other school systems use and asked for the creation of an alcohol advisory work group.
The idea of a graduation ban makes sense to O’Neill, who believes it could be a strong deterrent as senior year winds down and other punishments are less effective. “There’s not much you have holding over a student’s head,” she said.
Kauffman said the district does not seem to track all of its alcohol incidents, with just 11 noted for a full school year, 2014-2015, across more than two dozen high schools. “I have to believe there’s a whole lot more,” he said.
Many hope the review will spark a broader community conversation.
Deb Ford, president of the B-CC PTSA, said she strongly supports a tougher approach and is worried about the fallout from last spring as she looks ahead to the coming school year’s dances and football games.
“I’m concerned about what kind of behavior we are going to see because the kids think there aren’t going to be any serious ramifications,” said Ford, adding that she likes Fairfax’s approach of a 30-day suspension from school activities and clubs for those caught drinking.
Sheeja Philip, a parent at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, said she also favors a stricter response than Montgomery has in place. “The consequences should be something that would matter to them,” she said. “To me, high-schoolers are too young to be doing this. And according to the research, the younger they start, the more damaging it is.”
Others worry that cutting students off from extracurricular activities might have unintended fallout, because such activities can be a key part of a student’s connection to school. And some say graduation bans are too punitive, affecting families, not just students.
Mandi Mader, a parent at Walter Johnson who works as a psychotherapist, said students with substance-abuse problems need comprehensive help, and a graduation ban could make things worse.
“I understand graduation and prom are particularly risky times, but is banning them from graduation effective?” she asked. “Is it prevention? We know it’s very harsh, but does it work?”
Montgomery school officials say that student athletes experience a kind of extracurricular suspension similar to what some support: a minimum of 10 school days away from participation in sports following incidents of substance abuse.
At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Principal Alan Goodwin expands that practice to students involved in other clubs and activities. For drug and alcohol violations, students also typically get three days of in-school suspension and 10 hours of community service, he said.
“We have to take steps to try to keep kids safe,” he said. “It’s part of our moral responsibility. There cannot be a wink, wink, nod, nod about all of this.”
Principals have discretion in choosing an approach. Montgomery’s disciplinary guidelines suggest a range of potential options for alcohol or drug use, including suspensions for up to three days as well as referral to a substance-abuse program. The current debate focuses on consequences involving extracurricular activities or graduation that might be imposed on top of that.
As the issue has stirred interest, some involved have suggested that Montgomery’s decision regarding the B-CC students might have reflected a desire to adhere to the state’s move away from zero-tolerance approaches to student discipline.
But James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr., former president of the Maryland State Board of Education, who led the state’s discipline effort, said a principal’s warning that alcohol use at prom will mean graduation sanctions sounds like a sensible effort to keep students safe.
“That kind of action, I would say, is perfectly appropriate,” he said. The state’s effort, he said, was about academics and was designed to keep students in class and reduce suspensions that threaten academic success. Such suspensions often disproportionately affect black and Hispanic students.
“Every Maryland student has a right to an education,” he said. “The commencement ceremony is a privilege, and you can lose that privilege.”
In Anne Arundel, graduation bans have been an option for at least 10 years, spokesman Bob Mosier said. The district gives students and parents repeated notice of the rules, he said, so there are no surprises. Senior year comes with great excitement for students, “but we want them to make good choices, and not choices that are harmful or deadly,” he said.
A small group of students who violate no-alcohol policies near graduation season miss ceremonies in Fairfax County every year, spokesman John Torre said. The use of a 30-day suspension from all teams, clubs and school activities goes back many years, he said.
Megan McLaughlin, a Fairfax School Board member, said that although she believes strongly in doing everything possible to curb underage drinking, graduation bans are too punitive and reflect zero-tolerance thinking. “If we’re really concerned about underage drinking, it’s about education,” she said.
With graduation bans, she said, one mistake at the end of senior year can take a lasting toll: “They have that incredibly special event taken away forever.”