Two Board of Education members on Tuesday came out strongly in favor of modifying the school system’s policies toward underage drinking, though staff weren’t clear about when or if those changes will happen.
The discussion, at Tuesday’s meeting of the board’s Policy Management Committee, came in the wake of the controversy in May surrounding students who were caught drunk at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School prom.
Principal Donna Redmond Jones, who had warned seniors that those caught intoxicated at prom would be banned from the school’s June 1 graduation ceremony, followed through and told six seniors they wouldn’t be allowed to participate in graduation.
But Interim Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Larry Bowers, after hearing formal appeals from the students and their families, reversed the decision and allowed the students to take part in graduation, saying Jones erred in instituting a blanket no-graduation policy instead of doling out consequences on a case-by-case basis.
New MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith took over from Bowers on July 1.
The decision sparked outrage among some parents and teachers in the B-CC community, causing many to question the clarity of the school system’s policy and point to other county high school principals known to use the threat of a graduation ban to discourage drinking at prom.
“Personally, I think that what we have now is broken,” board member Phil Kauffman said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I’ve got a concern that at different schools, one principal says I’ve got a policy that says, ‘Absolutely, I’m going to use the loss of commencement as a discipline tool.’ ”
Board member Patricia O’Neill joined Kauffman Tuesday, saying she believes that banning students from graduation should be used as a consequence for seniors and “must be the ultimate threat.”
MCPS administrators briefed the four board members on the committee on the system’s existing policies regarding drinking or drug use at school events.
The school system’s existing Student Rights and Responsibilities policy says “Exclusion from commencement ceremonies may not be included in local school policies; however, principals retain the authority to exclude students from participation in commencement ceremonies for cause on a case-by-case basis.”
Kauffman said he’d like to see MCPS adopt a part of the Fairfax County school system’s policy, which suspends students caught drinking or using drugs at school from “all student activities, including teams, clubs, and all other school-sponsored activities,” for the 30 calendar days after the violation.
Board member Rebecca Smondrowski questioned whether a high school graduation ceremony should be considered in the same category as other school-sponsored activities.
“For me, graduating is more about the families than it is about the student,” Smondrowski said.
MCPS Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman and Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham told board members staff will examine the issue, while also looking into the possibility of setting up a committee to consider potential policy changes.
In June, board President Michael Durso lent his support to making changes, saying the board would “work with our parents and adults in our schools to be more vigilant in our community and to use fair, equitable and consistent rules and guidelines to confront the problem of alcohol and drug use.”
Deb Ford, president of the B-CC PTSA, said Tuesday after the committee meeting she was disappointed there wasn’t a more substantive discussion of potential policy changes.
“I think we’re back to square one. I think Pat O’Neill and Kauffman clearly seem to think that being clearer and adding some of this language [is a good idea], but I got the feeling [MCPS staff] didn’t,” Ford said.
During the meeting, Kauffman also questioned if high school principals were reporting all underage drinking incidents at school events. The school system recorded 11 underage drinking incidents at its 25 high schools during the 2014-2015 school year, Kauffman said.
Ford said she hopes to organize before the next school year begins with parents at Walter Johnson and Walt Whitman high schools to provide joint programs with B-CC about alcohol and drug use.
“We’re going to be facing a year with every single student from freshmen to incoming seniors and they know exactly what happened last year,” Ford said, referring to the reversal of the decision to ban the six seniors from graduation.