Carroll County school officials announced yesterday they are opening the door for public comment on a thorny issue -- whether students caught at a party where alcohol is served should be barred from extracurricular activities. But officials said major revisions in the regulation are unlikely.
The school system will hold a public forum Feb. 16 where residents will hear the administration's defense of the "eligibility" rule and have a chance to voice their opinions. The regulations resurfaced last month, when 22 Liberty High School students were declared ineligible for all extracurricular activities after attending New Year's Eve parties in Eldersburg.
Under the current rule, students found at a party where alcohol is present -- even if they are not drinking it -- can be barred from all sports and school activities for 45 days or longer. School officials have been hounded by criticism that the rule is too tough on students who are in the wrong place.
At a news conference yesterday, school officials said they are eager to hear from the public before publishing next year's regulation. Taking a tough posture, however, they also strongly favored keeping the regulation largely as it is.
"We have to weigh a lot of factors, and we wouldn't move away from any part of it without sound reasoning," said Gregory Eckles, Carroll's director of secondary schools. He added that when the rule went into effect in the 1980s -- and when it was stiffened to punish students for their presence -- the rule received widespread support.
"Parents came to us and said, 'You've got to do something about this,' " said Eckles. "And we still have a lot of support."
A committee of school staff, students and parents has been meeting since September to draft the revision. The new version is expected to be completed by March 1, when student handbooks for next year go to print. A new draft was not released yesterday, but officials discussed some of the committee's proposed changes. The new version is expected to more clearly define what the board calls "constructive possession" -- knowingly being in the presence of others who have drugs or alcohol. The new rule also is expected to make clear distinctions between "extracurricular" activities, such as band and drama, and "co-curricular" activities such as a chorus class.
Under the new definitions, an ineligible student would be able to continue attending chorus class because it is part of the curriculum, but would not be able to take part when the class held an evening concert, because after-school events are considered "extracurricular."
Students on the committee urged administrators to make a larger change: Taking the "constructive possession" clause out altogether. School officials maintain that students would know alcohol will be at a party and could decide not to attend. They stressed that each case is considered individually and that in special cases -- such as if a student were truly trapped against his will at a party -- he or she might not be penalized.
"I have talked to kids who have not gone to a party because they knew alcohol would be there and didn't want to lose their eligibility," said Cynthia Little, director of pupil services. "We're not creating this standard, and this value. In my opinion, this is a community value."
Under the eligibility regulation, students can be banned from activities because of poor academic performance, poor attendance, or unacceptable conduct -- the clause that includes attendance at parties. The administrators yesterday said that extracurriculars activities are a privilege and not a right in schools, meaning systems have a right to set standards for participation.
The regulation seems to be under constant scrutiny. Last February, 40 Westminster High students were barred from extracurricular activities after attending a party at a student's house. Furious parents sued the school system, saying the punishment could hurt their children's chances to win scholarships.