Rekindling debate on a perennial issue in Carroll County, parents urged school officials last night to rethink rules that punish students for attending parties where liquor is present -- even if the students do not actually drink.
"We work in this county, it would seem, on a presumption of guilt rather than innocence," said Joann Pilachowski of Union Mills. "This intrusion into private lives is awfully resonant to totalitarianism."
About 40 residents, some of them students, turned out for a public forum at school system headquarters as administrators prepared to revise the rules for the next academic year. The regulation attracted attention last month when 22 Liberty High School students were declared ineligible for extracurricular activities after attending New Year's Eve parties in Eldersburg.
Many parents argued that the regulation usurps their right to police their children. A school system, they said, has no business worrying about what students are doing after the last bell rings.
High school students at the forum said the rule has unintended effects. It encourages them to lie, they said, noting instances in which revelers who later told administrators they were not at a party went unpunished. Some said it also deters students from getting help for drunken friends or driving them home.
"If you're being a designated driver, that shows you know your right from wrong," said Behnaz Nabavian, a Liberty High School junior who related that she attended a party in question last fall. "But the message is you might as well drink because you're going to get in trouble anyway."
Some spoke in favor of the regulation. Kathy Crumbaugh, a North Carroll High School parent, turned from the podium to stare down students in the audience.
"To all the children who are drinking, it's a disgrace," she said, adding that the rule has been in place for several years. "It's only a problem now because everybody is drinking."
Under the provision, students can be punished for attending parties where alcohol or drugs are present. It is part of a broad regulation governing eligibility for extracurricular activities. Students can be temporarily banned from activities because of poor academic performance, poor attendance or unacceptable conduct.
School officials say they hope to complete a revision by March 1, when student handbooks for next year go to print. Officials said that while they will listen carefully to community concerns -- those expressed at last night's meeting and in a survey handed out at the forum -- any revisions will likely be minor.
Susan Goering, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, called the clause applying to attendance at parties too vague and too broad. As worded, she said, the rule could apply to students present at home when their parents invited friends over for drinks.
Also, Goering added, it could punish students who were trying to talk a friend out of taking drugs, if the drugs were in the friend's possession at the time.
"The Supreme Court regularly strikes down and voids laws that are this vague," Goering said in an interview. "They give way too much discretion to people with power."
Goering said punishing students for drinking off school property may also be a violation of their rights. Punishing them for merely attending a party seems even less defensible, she said, adding that if an appropriate legal test of the regulation ever surfaced, her organization would be ready to intervene.
School officials, however, insisted they have a legal right to determine who participates in extracurricular activities because they are a privilege and not a right.
"We can impose a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week policy," Ed O'Meally, legal counsel for the Carroll school system, said last night. "The law is clear."
School officials say they study each case before applying the regulation. They say the rule provides a way to deter students from going to parties where they know alcohol will be served.
The officials also say they receive as much or more positive feedback from the community than negative comments on the regulation.