NEWS- New rule: Parent, rat out thy school child

In the wake of the tragic death last spring of an Albemarle High student in an alcohol-related traffic accident, county schools toughened rules for athletes and now require parents to sign a pledge that they will turn in their child if she's caught drinking, using illegal drugs or tobacco.

Educators' determination to do something about underage drinking has raised new issues: Are schools intruding on parents' authority, setting punishments that are too harsh or unfairly singling out athletes?

"Schools have been over-reaching since the early '90s," says John Whitehead, founder of the civil liberties-focused Rutherford Institute. "They're asking parents to inform on their child? Why would a parent want to turn this over to the state?"

Last spring, after 16 Western Albemarle High students were arrested at a post-prom party, all athletes were required to sign a statement saying they hadn't broken long-standing but unenforced training rules and that no alcohol had touched their lips. Thirty students who didn't sign were not allowed to compete in post-season tournaments.

The athlete training rule, which kicks a violator off the team for the season, is under scrutiny by a committee of school principals, teachers and one citizen, which will make a recommendation to Superintendent Pam Moran. 

"Our goal is to eliminate underage drinking," says Albemarle executive director of support services Diane Behrens. "We'd like to have an influence on children to help them make good decisions and have an impact on their choices."

Virginia law allows parents to serve alcohol to their minor child or children. Rather than usurping state law, the county pledge asks parents to agree not to permit their children to drink during the season, explains Behrens. "That's the balance we struggle with– what's culturally acceptable, and our goal to eliminate underage drinking."

Whitehead says that if a child wanted to play sports, and the parents wouldn't sign because the pledge requires them to give up parental rights, "There's your lawsuit."

He wonders, "Could a young person take communion with wine? Some churches serve communion only with wine. So would the students be denied communion– or if they did partake, would the parents be obligated to report them?"

Whitehead calls the policy "broad" and "absurd," with the government forcing parents to be "state agents"– or to lie. "I understand drinking is a problem," he says. "I'm not sure that overbearing harsh rules are going to correct it."

Kevin Carson, whose daughter was suspended when she reported friends drinking at Monticello High last fall, says the schools are "absolutely" trying to take over the role of parents and violating parents' rights to punish their children as they see fit.

"Would you turn them in if it meant ruining chances for a college scholarship and to play their sport?" he queries. "It's forcing parents to lie."

Other parents are less dismayed at the idea of reporting their offspring. "I think since I signed it, and he signed, I would," says Janice Brown, parent of a Western basketball and baseball player.

She has different concerns about the pledge. "The fact that it doesn't apply to anyone except athletes is a problem, and it only applies during the athletic season," says Brown. "If there are a whole bunch of kids at a party, the athletes are going to get kicked off the team. What happens to the other kids?"

School Board member Jon Stokes agrees alcohol policy should apply to all students– not just athletes– and he's not bothered that parents are asked to turn in their children.

"What's not reasonable to me about the policy is the level of punishment imposed right away," he says, calling the present one-strike-you're-off-the-team rule "draconian." 

"I think having a set of expectations the parents and student sign off on is a good thing," says School Board member Brian Wheeler, who's also the parent of a WAHS student. He points out that athletics are optional, and if parents are uncomfortable with the pledge and its requirement they turn in their child, "They shouldn't sign."

Wheeler, too, thinks the consequences of violating the training rules need some work. "The first offense takes them off the team for the whole season," he says. "That drives behavior underground. That says to me we need to make some adjustments."

Wheeler proposes applying the training rule approach to all students.

"Our goal is not to be in the parental role," he emphasizes. "But when we have a disruption to the schools, if a dozen or so students are arrested, that has the potential of crossing the line to being a material disruption. If it crosses that threshold, the school division has a responsibility to investigate."

The committee met March 16 and will recommend to Moran that training rules be expanded beyond athletes to include band, drama, and other extracurricular activities, says Behrens. "There's a restorative justice aspect, a counseling component, and it's much more focused on intervention than punitive," she says. 

Superintendent Moran will present her decision to the School Board April 19. The board will discuss, but not vote on it, according to Behrens, because it's not a policy issue.

Albemarle isn't the only school system grappling with underage drinking. St. Anne's-Belfield has its own pledge– the Parents' Pledge– in which parents are "invited" to promise not to allow students to drink in their homes. Students who participate in athletics and are elected class officers must sign a pledge, along with their parents, to abstain from alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. If they violate the rules, suspension from the activity is within the discretion of the school's headmaster.

STAB head David Lourie stresses getting help for the student. "Our goal is to deal with it as a partner with the parent," he says. "If a student is using drugs or alcohol, an open atmosphere– regardless of the consequences– is better." 

And if a STAB student is caught drinking off school grounds, parents are expected to advise the school, Lourie adds.

Charlottesville High does not have a pledge. "We have a code of conduct," says principal Kenneth Leatherwood. "Athletes are part of the student body. We treat students as students and apply the code of conduct equally."

Students caught drinking or using drugs face a 10-day suspension, but if the parent and student get counseling, that can be partially reduced, says Leatherwood.

As for what happens during after-school hours, "We don't try to legislate outside the school," he says. "That's tough to do."