Thursday, October 17, 2013

Massachusetts School Has No Defense for Suspending Student Who Came to the Aid of Drunk Friend

My prior posts have tried to nail down the exact facts in the ongoing saga of a student suspended from her volleyball team  and stripped of her postion as captain for coming to a party to pick up a drunk friend and drive her home. Relying on news reports and attorney attestations make me nervous, but, at this point, there does not seem to be a dispute over what actually happened.  The student was not drunk, was released by the police at the party that night and, although summoned to court later, was not charged or convicted of anything.  Thus, the dispute in this case is over the legality and rationality of the school's decision to suspend the student from the volleyball team.  I was rather shocked to red Bryan Toporek's defense of the school in EdWeek Tuesday. He wrote:

Despite a police officer vouching for her sobriety in writing, Cox was one of those 15 summoned to court. Once that happened, the school acted accordingly. 

The high school's student handbook specifies that "from the earliest fall practice date to the conclusion of the academic year or final athletic event (whichever is latest), all student-athletes must not "use, consume, possess, buy/sell, or give away any beverage containing alcohol; any tobacco product; marijuana; steroids; or any controlled substance." Once the school's principal confirms a violation of this policy, following "an opportunity for the student to be heard," the student loses eligibility for 40 percent of the season. 

Additionally, per the handbook, "a captain who is disciplined or involved in any incident involving an alcohol/drugs (controlled substance) violation at ANY TIMEincluding Summer Vacation," will lose his/her captaincy in addition to any other consequences." 

Long story short: The handbook is pretty cut-and-dry here. By virtue of Cox being summoned to court for drinking (even though she didn't consume alcohol that evening), the school had little choice, based on the way their policy is currently written, to strip her of her captaincy. 

Toporek, like the school, jumps to a lot of false conclusions.  The Supreme Court has rejected attempts to scrutinize school rules in the same manner as criminal codes, but the Court has never indicated that the rules do not matter or that schools can apply them irrationally.  First, it is far from clear that simply being summoned to court constitutes involvement with drugs or alcohol. The summons could be false, incorrect, or necessary for the court to obtain information from a witness.  Testifying in drug case, for instance, is not involvement with drugs; it is involvement with the court system, a far different thing.  Surely, involvement with the court system is not a punishable offense.  If so, the school rule would amount to an obstruction of justice.

Second, one could argue that coming to the aid of drunk friend is "involvement with alcohol," but such a broad reading stretches rationality and the school discretion under the constitution too far.  If driving a drunk friend home to keep her safe is a violation, then I suppose sitting down to eat dinner with one's parents who are drinking wine is involvement with alcohol as well.  In fact, it may be more culpable because the student is tacitly condoning the drinking, whereas driving a friend home to keep him or her safe involves no such endorsement.  In fact, the drive home could very well include tongue-lashing.  

So when the school's attorney says it "is really trying to take a very serious and principled stand regarding alcohol," I am not quite sure what that principle is: that a student's intent and culpability are irrelevant, that being within some physical distance of the chemical alcohol is prohibited, or that if convesation of alcohol is in the air a student must run the other way.  Regardless, all three "principles" are constitutionally suspect.

Note: This post was updated to reflect that the suspension was from athletics only, not school, which I learned and confirmed when I later was able to get the complaint.

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