Fight for your right to party

Civil Liberties Dept.
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 11, 2009

Rhode Island's tragic collision with teen drinking in recent years has heightened concern about substance abuse in the state's school districts. And understandably so. But civil libertarians say the latest efforts to pry the Budweisers and joints out of high schoolers' hands amount to a dangerous overreach.

Take North Kingstown.

A decades-old drug and alcohol policy has all the provisions you might expect. There is no intoxication allowed on school grounds or at school events. No possession or distribution of controlled substances, either. And there are provisions for intervention and discipline when students cross the line.

But in June, the school committee went a step further. Now, a student who walks into a party where "alcohol or drugs are being illegally dispensed" must leave the gathering immediately or risk discipline, including suspension from extracurricular activities. And images of students downing a beer or smoking weed on Facebook may be grounds for action.

The district's policy, moreover, "is in effect year round, in and out of season, on and off the field, in and out of uniform for all students involved in extracurricular activities."

And North Kingstown is not the only community to ratchet up the rules. Barrington, site of the highest-profile teen drinking calamities of recent years, imposes similar strictures on its student-athletes. And the Middletown and South Kingstown schools are considering ramped-up policies of their own.

Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the state's public schools have an interest in curbing teen substance abuse.

But extending their reach beyond school-sponsored events, he said, smacks of Big Brotherism. "This 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week policy is truly an incredible usurpation of parental authority," he said.

And the notion that a student could face discipline merely for being in the presence of underage drinking, he said, is "absurd." Even harmful. What of the would-be designated driver who leaves a party for fear of punishment?

Larry Ceresi, chairman of the North Kingstown School Committee, says he understands the concern. But better to draw up an aggressive policy with no loopholes, he suggested, and let administrators exercise some judgment in applying it.

Brown says that's no way to write the rules. "People should know what is allowed and what is not," he said.

But the bigger debate, it seems, is the proper role of the state in protecting minors. And the man driving much of Rhody's rule-tightening is clear about where he stands on that issue.

John Underwood, a one-time elite runner, is the president of the American Athletic Institute, a Chestertown, New York-based consulting firm that focuses on stamping out underage drinking and drug use — particularly among student-athletes.

Underwood, who has hosted community meetings across the state on substance abuse and advised districts on their stepped-up alcohol and drug policies, says the nation's public schools have a clear mission: protect kids from their own bad decisions.

"It would be a parent's role if every parent was doing the job," he said, but too often mom and dad are falling short.

Not every school official is buying into his program, though. At least not fully. Underwood is working with the Scituate schools on curbing teen substance abuse. And Assistant Superintendent Lawrence Filippelli says he's all for that larger push.

But the schools, he said, need to be careful about imposing weekend rules. If an administrator finds a Facebook image of a student using alcohol, there is a moral obligation to contact parents, Filippelli said. Suspending a student from the basketball team, he suggested, is another matter. "There's a fine line . . . when you talk about disciplining kids in school for something they've done outside," he said.

A fine line, indeed.

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