Alcohol policy is supported by principals


A day after one Carroll County school board member asked the superintendent to re-examine a policy that punishes student-athletes who drink or even attend a party where there are underage drinkers, school officials across the county expressed support for the rules but said they are open to suggestions to improve them.

Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that he would poll teachers, religious leaders, parents, prosecutors, students, law enforcement officials and school administrators to gather input and opinions on the school system's decade-old eligibility policy. He will report back to the school board in May.

"We'll take a look at it," Ecker said. "I'll have some discussions with people and see what their ideas are and bring them back to the board."

Under district rules - considered among the strictest in the Baltimore area - students can be declared ineligible and barred from sports and other extracurricular activities because of failing grades, poor attendance or unacceptable conduct, which includes the rules regulating students' attendance at parties.

In the most recent application of the regulations, nine Westminster High School varsity girls' basketball players were suspended last month from the team for the rest of the season for allegedly attending a sleepover party where there was underage drinking.

The father of one of the players, Randall S. Matthews, 47, of Westminster, was charged Wednesday with buying the beer that eight of the girls allegedly drank and with having sex with one of his daughter's 17-year-old teammates.

School board member Laura K. Rhodes, who spoke out against the policy as a parent activist before being elected in November, asked for a review of the alcohol policy at a board meeting Wednesday, calling it ineffective and counterproductive.

Although Ecker and administrators on his staff were not yet sure what, if any, changes they might suggest, Rhodes' colleagues on the five-member board said they would keep an open mind on any recommendations offered in May. But they said they believe the policy is effective and that it deters students who might otherwise be tempted to drink alcohol or use drugs.

High school principals interviewed yesterday also said the policy has its place in the rulebook.

"It gives students an opportunity to walk away from drug and alcohol situations that they would not necessarily have without the policy being there," said Westminster High Principal John Seaman, who suspended the nine basketball players Jan. 21 after he learned of the December party.

"Peer pressure is a very powerful thing," Seaman said. "But the desire to play sports is also very powerful. When one student can look another student in the eye - when they can say, 'I can't go there, you remember when so-and-so went there and was thrown off the team?' - it gives them an excuse to say no. It doesn't happen in every case, but I'm certain it happens in at least some cases."

This is not the first time school officials have taken another look at a policy that seems to generates public furor nearly every time a prominent group of students are barred from extracurricular activities.

In February 1999, 40 Westminster High students were declared ineligible after attending a party at a student's home. Those punished included athletes, band musicians and Students Against Drunk Driving members. The junior class president was removed from office, a marketing club member couldn't attend a state convention even though she had paid for the trip and National Honor Society members were kicked out of the organization.

Twelve students and their families sued the school system, first in federal court and then in Carroll County Circuit Court, seeking to have their children reinstated on teams and in clubs and the rule struck down. Judges dismissed both cases.

Less than a year later, 22 Liberty High School students were forced out of extracurricular activities after attending two New Year's Eve parties where students were drinking.

At a public forum in February 2000, some parents complained that the policy usurps parents' right to police their children and equated the school rules to totalitarianism. Students warned of unintended consequences, saying that it encourages teen-agers to lie to avoid punishment and deters students from helping drunk friends.

Stressing that complaints brought to her attention have not been from parents whose children have been disciplined under the eligibility policy, Rhodes said she has "tons" of concerns about the rules.

Chief among them, she said, is that little student drinking gets reported because of parents' reluctance.

She said administrators are forced to rely too heavily on teen-agers, who can easily manipulate the reporting system to exact revenge on someone they don't like. "We're talking about more than a three-day suspension," Rhodes said. "We're talking about something that could affect college plans and scholarship possibilities just because someone stole someone else's boyfriend."

She suggested that spot drug and alcohol testing at school could serve as an equally strong deterrent without the undesirable side effects.

"Now that it's had time to play out a few years," she said, "I think the policy warrants more discussion."

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