NEWS- Turnabout: Student suspended after reporting friend
At a recent football game, 16-year-old Monticello High School junior Brittany Carson realized that a good friend had been drinking. She decided to report it– and wound up learning a powerful lesson, finding herself among the five students suspended in the incident.
Brittany's father, Kevin Carson, is so incensed by the 10-day penalty that he has retained a lawyer and has rented billboard space and daily newspaper advertising space to warn parents that Albemarle County schools know no bounds in punishment.
The story began before the September 29 game against Charlottesville High School when Brittany, a member of the Monticello color guard, was sitting with some band members at a table in the school cafeteria.
"Someone came up with an orange juice bottle and offered me some," she says. She took a sip and smelled the alcohol. "I put the top on the bottle and went on my way," she says.
At the game later that night, another friend approached her and said, "'Smell my breath,'" recalls Brittany. "She was reeking of alcohol, and she drove that night. If she'd had an accident, I'd never forgive myself."
Brittany didn't report the incident immediately, but later she consulted the color guard captain, who, on October 3, emailed the coach with details of the drinking.
An investigation ensued, and Brittany was shocked at the result: "They turned around and suspended me," she says.
According to Brittany's dad, this wasn't just a case of zero tolerance– but zero evidence. He believes students implicated Brittany for speaking out.
"Because there was no evidence of who or what had gone on– just hearsay– they chose to suspend all of the students involved for 10 days," says her father.
Kevin Carson, who says he was at the game that night and talked to his daughter when she came home, is convinced she didn't drink. He's proud of Brittany, he says, because "she said no."
The Carsons and other parents criticize the way assistant principal Jim Asher handled the investigation– they say he's sending a clear message: that students risk suspension if they report illegal activities.
"I was never innocent until proven guilty," says Brittany. "He suspended me on hearsay, with no evidence. He talked to 20 people, but not all of them were there. They said, 'I hear...' And he had it all written on little bits of paper."
Asher questioned Brittany twice about the incident. "He said, 'I don't know if I believe you, so it's in Mr. [principal Billy] Haun's hands," she says.
Asher did not return phone calls from the Hook.
Kevin Carson says Haun told him the school's zero-tolerance policy gave them no choice but to suspend Brittany. Carson disagrees with the interpretation and appealed Brittany's suspension to the superintendent's office, where Tom McLernon, hearing officer for Albemarle County schools, upheld the suspension. Kevin and Brittany Carson say he praised Brittany for doing the right thing– and then said he had to uphold the school policy.
"I denied the appeal on the basis of the testimony brought to me by the assistant principal, who'd made several investigations," says McLernon. "Here was a little girl who was doing a friend a favor, but that didn't excuse her for what she did."
As for the Carsons' belief that Brittany's suspension was the result of hearsay, particularly from the girls she told on, McLernon responds, "Heavens no. That's not true. Not when we've got proof." And the proof? "Testimony from witnesses," he says.
Kevin Carson is upset that he had no appeal beyond McLernon, and that his phone calls to Superintendent Pam Moran were not returned– although Moran did send him an email and a letter.
Moran had not returned the Hook's phone call by press time.
Sean Fry, 16, was suspended in the same incident. "Two kids didn't know what was in the bottle they drank from, and they were punished the same as people who willingly drank and brought it," says Yolie Williams, Fry's mother.
"It's the worst thing my son has ever gone through," she says. He "felt it didn't matter what he said."
Williams says her son, a junior, is an honor roll student who has his heart set on going to music school. "We're all just devastated," she says. "This child does not get in trouble."
Both Fry and Carson are taking four advanced classes, and worry about missing 10 days of class as well as the blot on their school records.
Brittany Carson says she's not sure she'll remain at Monticello because she fears this incident could happen again. And in the course of investigating this story, the Hook heard from another former Monticello High students who says he unknowingly was given alcohol– and then suspended.
Hook photographer Will Walker was a sophomore at MHS in 2001. After a football game, he went to a school dance where, he says, a kid gave him a clear Deer Park water bottle to hold while he went to the bathroom.
"The principal came up and said,'You're coming with me; that's moonshine,'" recounts Walker, who still maintains he had no idea what was in the bottle. Although he says he blew 0.0 on a breathalyzer test, he was nevertheless suspended for 15 days for possession of alcohol. "I was livid at the time," Walker remembers.
Brittany Carson says Haun told her that two mentally retarded students were given Coke cans that, unbeknownst to them, had illicit substances in them– and they were suspended, too.
Haun did not return the Hook's phone calls.
"I have no respect for public schools," says Brittany Carson. "I said, 'What do I have to do to prove to you that I'm telling the truth?'"
Kevin Carson has not ruled out the possibility of litigation. He wants to see the policy changed so that kids like Brittany are not suspended on the testimony of others– and then not allowed to know who those witnesses are.
He believes there should be physical evidence of possession and use, and that guidelines for dealing with instances of false accusations should be clear.
As a result of this situation, Carson says, he's setting up a nonprofit watchdog group dedicated to overseeing the policies of administrators in the Albemarle County school system.
Kevin Carson vows to fight the system that suspended his daughter, Brittany, after she turned in a friend for drinking.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER