School policy has no tolerance for drugs
The array of disciplinary challenges facing today's educators has resulted in the development of a multi-tiered policy at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School's (MVRHS) that covers infractions ranging from profane language to terrorist actions, and everything in-between.
One of the biggest issues high schools face is substance abuse. Although policies addressing drugs and alcohol are fairly standard among schools, how they are enforced varies.
Some students and parents may not realize that the substance abuse policy extends to all MVRHS activities, including school trips and even the bus stops. "We extend our purview to the fullest extent of the law, in terms of Massachusetts state law," said principal Peg Regan last week.
The Regional High School drug policies also extend to some student activities outside of school. Photo by Susan Safford
At the regional high school, the substance abuse policy is detailed in the student handbook under the sections "Discipline" on pages 21 to 23 and "Athletics" on page 41. Although state law gives wide parameters on substance abuse, assistant principal Steve Nixon said that MVRHS specifically spells out four levels of violations. There is no getting off with a warning when it comes to drugs.
As outlined by Mr. Nixon, the first level - possession of drug paraphernalia - results in a five-day suspension on average. The second, being under the influence of drugs, results in a 10-day suspension. The third, possession of drugs, results in a long-term suspension or "exclusion" for one semester or its equivalent. The fourth, possession of drugs with intent to distribute, results in exclusion for two entire semesters.
"It is the physical carrying of drugs into the building that gets a student into the most trouble, whether it is for personal use or for distribution," said Ms. Regan. "We have the police come in and get their assistance in determining whether the amount of drugs and how they are packaged constitutes trafficking or distribution."
Long-term suspensions and exclusions present a dilemma on Martha's Vineyard, where there is no alternative educational program available. In addition to being banned from attending classes, students who are suspended or excluded cannot attend any school activities, including sporting events.
With little else for kids to do on the Island other than school activities, Ms. Regan considers it a very harsh punishment. "To leave a child with a drug problem isolated at home is only just fueling the fire," she said.
Because alternative education options are absent, said Mr. Nixon, "rather than just being punitive, we try to make sure there is some continuous education, counseling and a community service component, as well."
The high school provides suspended and excluded students with 10 hours of tutoring a week at a local library and arranges for them to perform 20 to 30 hours of community service a week through the Dukes County Sheriff's Department. In addition, students receive mandatory counseling and must pass three drug screens to qualify for a return to school.
Michael McCarthy, guidance department director, said it is difficult for a family when a student is excluded from school for a semester and not enrolled in a school setting during the day, especially if both parents work. "We try to support the family in getting a viable plan to keep the student going educationally," he said.
Amy Lilavois, MVRHS adjustment counselor, can help a family look at available resources. Counseling services are available through Community Services. "They always support our kids, regardless of a family's ability to pay," she said.
The one-strike rule at the high school dates back to 1993, when Doug Herr, assistant principal at the time, retooled the student handbook's policies to comply with Massachusetts General Law. It was Mr. Herr's belief that taking a hard-line, zero-tolerance approach towards drugs and alcohol would send a strong message.
"We have the one-strike rule pretty much because there is a tremendous fear that this school can and might be easily overrun by drugs. We have so many drugs, supposedly, on the Island during the summer, and so many drug dealers and so on, that the high school could easily become an epicenter for drug dealing," said Ms. Regan.
The policy serves as a powerful deterrent, showing students that drug possession and/or use are not worth the risk of exclusion from school for a semester, Ms. Regan said. She offered statistics reflecting student drug offenses from Sept. 1993 to Sept. 2006:
Possession of drug paraphernalia: 6 total (all males).
Under the influence suspensions: 6 total (3 males, 3 females).
Extended exclusions for possession: 21 total (17 males, 4 females).
Full-year exclusions for possession with intent to distribute: 6 total (all males).
"I think for 95 percent of our students, that system works. For most, knowing we have the policy is sufficient. And then for those 2 to 5 percent who are naïve enough or not thinking well or criminally involved who bring something to school or a school function, that is why we have the very strict four-tier policy," Ms. Regan said.
Teachers or chaperones usually are the ones who catch students under the influence or in possession of drugs, she said. "Do we catch every student with paraphernalia in the school? Probably not. Do we catch every person who has used? Actually, that's probably the easiest one, because if a student is under the influence, the visible evidence is so clear."
The school nurse also is a valuable resource in helping determine whether a student who is acting strange or sluggish might have a health issue rather than a drug problem, Mr. Nixon added.
In cases where students are in possession of drug paraphernalia, under the influence or in possession of drugs, their parents are called, along with the police, who seek cooperation in naming drug suppliers. However, Ms. Regan said, "It is very difficult to get students to turn in other students."
She also noted that sometimes distinguishing between the discipline policy's four categories of violations proves difficult. "People make the argument, if students are under the influence, how could they not be in possession? So there is a gray area, and we try very hard to research and investigate each case during the suspension period to ensure that we have kept a consistent discipline approach over the last 10 to 15 years," said Ms. Regan.
Each case is compared with similar cases from years past and penalties decided based on what she calls longitudinal data. Drug infractions involving being under the influence and using or possessing drugs trigger a hearing held by the principal with the student, parents, attorneys, school guidance counselor, and witnesses, in accordance with a script outlined by state law. At the end of the suspension or exclusion period, the student attends a reentry meeting with the principal and a guidance counselor.
The high school does keep an expulsion record. A disciplinary record is kept up to one year, but is not included in records for use outside of school.
However, Ms. Regan warned, some colleges now ask about suspensions as well as expulsions on application forms.
"Knowing that this is an incident that can reverberate into your future is huge," she said. "I guess it's their prerogative to ask that, in trying to make acceptance decisions among students, but I think it is a harsh thing to have to carry that into college."
Seeking ways to make the discipline policy easy to understand, Ms. Regan hopes to include an addendum in next year's student handbook that outlines its four levels and gives very specific examples of violations. "I think it needs to be continuously communicated to students and parents what the consequences are going to be, so they can talk about it," she said.
The discipline policy is available online in English and Portuguese at www.mvrhs.org (click on "student," then "handbook").