Six-month school suspension is an extreme punishment, therapist says

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School has no school resource police officer. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Patricia Newell Bennett of Chilmark is a psychologist who specializes in working with young people and adults with alcohol or drug addictions. One of several drug and alcohol evaluators for the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, she is often asked to provide professional assessments of students who may be facing discipline for violations of the school’s drug policies.

Ms. Bennett met with Rebecca Townes and her son Dorian Johnson at the request of the high school guidance office earlier this month but was not asked to provide any advice about punishment of the young man for using marijuana. That punishment was a six-month suspension from school.

Ms. Bennett is sharply critical of the high school policy that allows for expulsions of that duration. “I have worked in public and private schools with kids for 30 years around this issue,” Ms. Bennett said. “I think it is really extreme.”

Ms. Bennett said that last year she met with a student who was also suspended for six months.

“The school system thinks that they are making a statement by singling these kids out,” she said. “What they are doing is putting a tremendous burden on the family and on the kid. It is just an unnecessary punishment. Especially for a first offense.”

Ms. Bennett said six months is a very long time to separate a teenager from his or her peers, the school community, and all school-related activities.

“It puts the kid in a much more precarious position,” she said.

According to Ms. Bennett, there is no benefit to removing a child from school unless the child needs specialized treatment.

“There are kids who have had to leave the Martha’s Vineyard high school to go to drug and alcohol treatment,” she said. “You are never too young to be an alcoholic. There are kids that are 12, 14, or 16 years old that are full-blown alcoholics and they need to be in rehab.”

Ms. Bennett, the author of “I’m So Glad You Asked, Helping Young Children Living in Families with Drug and Alcohol Addictions,” said she has shared her views with schools superintendent James Weiss and Mr. Nixon. “They basically thanked me for my opinion,” she said.

Ms. Bennett said that based on her experience with the Island school system, discipline is not consistent, particularly with regard to participation on sports teams.

“There are kids that have been caught with drugs or alcohol that have only been suspended for two games and have played the rest of an entire season and not been suspended from school at all,” she said.

Ms. Bennett said the discipline policy must be applied consistently. And the policy of handing out six-month suspensions for drug and alcohol violations needs to be changed.

Ms. Bennett estimates she has met with 20 to 30 high school students in her professional capacity in the past several years.

“If they suspended every child at Martha’s Vineyard high school who has experimented with pot or alcohol, there would be very few children left in the building,” she said.