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Monday, July 28, 2014

Ross Rambles: You can't please everybody

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Cherokee School Board and the school administrators have my sympathy, working long hours on academic eligibility and conduct policies, knowing that no matter what they come up with, it will be the source of more hard feelings than any other policies the district has.

These two policy areas govern the eligibility of high school students to participate in athletics, music, drama, debate and speech, as well as certain representations of the school such as being homecoming royalty or a student council member. There are separate, but hopefully consistent, policies governing eligibility of 7th and 8th graders for extracurricular activities.

Something that parents and students need to bear in mind is that these policies are not the same things as laws. Even when a conduct violation involves activity that can be regarded as a crime, conviction in court is not required for the school to regard the activity as a conduct violation.

The law requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction of a crime. The standard for a school district is a preponderance of evidence.

Conviction of a crime is usually considered a more serious matter than a school conduct violation, but not always. A fine for a simple misdemeanor such as tobacco possession, which may or may not be paid out of a student's personal funds, may be a less serious consequence than ineligibility for extra-curricular activities.

The primary reason for the lower level of proof needed to determine a school violation is the impracticality of doing otherwise. A school does not have the resources or authority to conduct an investigation like what would be expected by the police department for a criminal charge. The school is also unable to carry out a hearing that is as elaborate as a criminal trial.

A school imposing discipline is, and should be, somewhere between the total informality of a parent imposing discipline and the total formality of a court imposing discipline, a bit closer to the former than the latter.

This means it's possible for a student to receive undeserved discipline but then it is even possible for a criminal court, operating as it should operate, to convict an innocent person. Beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean beyond any possibility of doubt. The preponderance of evidence requirement of schools allows for a greater possibility that someone is unfairly disciplined.

There are far more times that a kid gets away with doing something wrong than times when a kid is punished for something the kid didn't do. This was the way things were when I was a kid, not that I had any first hand experience of getting away with doing anything wrong but I knew some other kids (not really friends of mine or even what I'd call acquaintances) who I had heard did bad things and didn't get caught.

I'm not saying that kids getting away with something makes it right to punish a kid for something he or she didn't do. It's just that life isn't always fair and most kids understand that.

What kids do have a right to expect of those in authority is that fairness be an objective. Nothing undermines respect for authority among students and parents more than the perception that some students receive special treatment because of who their parents are or how important they are to a team or how they get along with staff members.

That is why administrators and board members have been struggling to implement a policy that is as clear and objective as possible. There were several areas of policy over which board members and administrators engaged in spirited discussion at a meeting this week. There were two areas in particular requiring that school officials weigh practicality against protection from unmerited discipline.

On the question of whether students should remain eligible during an appeal of a disciplinary action, practicality won out. Students could sometimes circumvent discipline by delaying it. The counterargument is that a lost opportunity at participation in an event can never be undone.

It was stated at the meeting that a person is supposedly innocent until proven guilty but it was also stated that someone convicted of a crime is not released from prison just because an appeal has been filed.

Hopefully, an administrator doesn't discipline a student merely because of a suspicion and then rely on an appeal process to confirm or eliminate the suspicion. I don't believe any current administrator in the district would do that. The preponderance of evidence needs to be determined before any disciplinary action is taken.

Another matter of debate was the "mere presence" provision of the requirement that students not be at a party where minors use alcohol or drugs.

It is understood that the kind of party referred to is not an adult event at which minors are present, such as a wedding reception. Even though one or more minors may manage to consume alcohol at the event, only those minors who actually consumed alcohol at the event would be subject to discipline.

Although the rules are made as objective as possible, there is no avoiding the fact that there will be times where common sense judgments are made. The difference between an adult event and a kegger for kids, even one in which some of the participants are over 21, is fairly easy to determine on a common sense basis.

It is not easy too determine who drank and who didn't drink at a party, or how long a student was at the party and for what purpose. Again, the decision was to go with practicality and to simply regard the "mere presence" at an alcohol or drug party to be a violation of the rule.

As explained at the meeting referred to, a student would not likely be disciplined under this rule unless the party was busted and the student was present at the party at the time it was busted.

It is possible for a person to not realize that alcohol or drugs are being used at a party until it's too late, but not likely. The alternative to the "mere presence" rule is accepting any claim of innocence made by anyone not tested for and charged with intoxication.

It was decided that being a "designated driver" is not a legitimate function for an underage person. A possible scenario that two administrators found disturbing was when one or more students call a friend to come out and drive them home. The good Samaritan, wishing only to prevent a drunk driver from being on the road, could come out to pick up a friend or friends and law enforcement could come in right behind the Samaritan. That's not likely but it is a possibility.

If the Samaritan arranges for the drunk person or persons to wait outside and the Samaritan avoids getting out of the car, the Samaritan could avoid discipline. Such an arrangement might not be possible or the Samaritan might not think about it but the existence of this option in some cases further reduces the possibility of an innocent person being disciplined for trying to do a good deed.

Could the possibility of discipline prevent a young person from doing a good deed? Possibly, but there are other dangers the young sober person needs to consider before venturing off on such a rescue mission. A drunk driver could plow into the car of the Samaritan, again something that is not likely but a possibility, one with more serious consequences than discipline for violating the good conduct rule.

What would I have done as a high school student?

Well, let's suppose an intoxicated friend of mine called me at home to come get him (I would say 'or her' but that adds an element we will not deal with here). For argument's sake, let us assume that it is at least theoretically possible that I could have been at home while a friend of mine was at a beer party.

I would not let fear of being unfairly disciplined deter me. I would have been at the party as quickly as possible. If the police came in right behind me, resulting in discipline for something I didn't do, would that have made me angry?

Well, possibly, but then at that time I regarded the entire adult world as an inconvenience, serving only to deal with such trivial matters in my life as food, shelter and clothing.

It is not possible to appease everyone with a good conduct policy but we should appreciate the effort to do that.