Schools Have Rules: Drunk and Stupid Edition

It appears that the members of the school board overseeing North Andover High have a problem on their hands.  Their students are drinking booze.  It’s fairly well agreed that high school students shouldn’t get drunk, despite a long-standing tradition of teenagers testing the limits and feeling their way through their budding adulthood in potentially destructive ways.

But as MADD, and SADD, and any other organization with double “D’s” at their end would have it, these destructive behaviors result in harm, and there is no doubt truth to this argument.  So there are two answers: the first is to create a general policy to prevent destructive conduct. The second is to craft a Zero Tolerance approach to show kids how serious this is and how adults would rather scorch their earth than use their heads. The school board in charge of North Andover high picked the latter.

From the Atlantic Wire:

Erin Cox is a senior honor student at North Andover High School and was captain of her school volleyball team until she was punished and suspended for five games. The crime? She gave her drunk friend a ride home.

“A North Andover High School honor student, Erin was cleared by police, who agreed she had not been drinking and was not in possession of alcohol. But Andover High told Erin she was in violation of the district’s zero tolerance policy against alcohol and drug use,” CBS Boston reported.

One of the things we tell our children is that if they are ever in a situation where they need us to come and get them, for whatever reason, we will do so. No questions asked. The idea is simple: it’s better that they live than die. It’s better to save them than scare them. We can deal with the problem later.

Erin Cox was not just the “good girl,” but the young woman who got it.  And she was there for her friend, as would be a parent or, well, anyone who didn’t have their head up their butt. Cox received a call from a drunk friend at a party, and Cox did what she had to do.

Police showed up at the party when Cox arrived, but noted that she was neither drinking nor participating.  She was a kid who tried to save another kid from that destructive behavior the schools want so desperately to prevent. But no good deed goes unpunished.

The Atlantic Wire article reproduces school policy, which broadly prohibits students from being anywhere near anything the school wants them to avoid, during, before, after school hours. They own these kids, 24/7. For their own good, of course, because schools are paragons of virtue and the judgment of an elected school board is invariably far better than the judgment of anyone else, parents included.  Hey, it may be, given some parents, but still.

“The school is really trying to take a very serious and principled stand regarding alcohol,” said Geoffrey Bak, a lawyer for the school district.

And by “very serious and principled,” they mean mind-bogglingly inflexible and harmful. Instead of giving Erin Cox their deep appreciation for doing a good deed, they punished her for being part of a group involved with alcohol. It’s the rules.

While the punishment may not strike many as particularly severe, demoted from captain of her volleyball team and suspended for five games, its impact on a high school student can be disproportionate and far more significant than it would be to an adult. These things can matter to a kid, especially when it seems so patently unfair.

But there is a bigger issue at stake, when the message is sent that by taking action to help someone, to prevent the potential harm that policies seek to prevent, one risks punishment.  Has no one on that school board ever listened to Phil Ochs?

The counter argument, of course, is that once exceptions to zero tolerance are made, the moral suasion of the principle is subject to attack and dispute.  How can it be that terrible if there is room in the rules to waver, if there are exceptions, if it’s not always that terrible.

Of course, this raises another life lesson, but less so for the students than the school board members and the parents who support zero tolerance. Life’s not that simple. Inflexibility of rules will eventually smack into a brick wall of absurdity.  For North Andover High, it happened here.

Some may call Erin Cox a hero for doing the right thing. Some might even think she deserves a trophy.  I don’t agree. What Erin Cox did was the right thing, and something that everyone ought to do for a person in need.  We don’t get trophies for doing the right thing. It’s what we should expect of ourselves, and our children.  They should be thanked and appreciated for doing right, but not put on a pedestal. Doing right should be normal, not special.

But to punish Erin Cox for doing the right thing is crazy, regardless of how severe the punishment is.  And as the school board tries to hide behind its “principled” approach to justify what no thinking person would see as an appropriate outcome, it not only puts the lie to the simpletons who adore zero tolerance policies, but teaches the students in their charge an important lesson: it’s better to do nothing and let bad things happen to others. Perfect.


16 thoughts on “Schools Have Rules: Drunk and Stupid Edition

  1. Dan

    Aside from demonstrating that some people are so stupid that it makes me sad, it also highlights the difference between public school and private school- go near alcohol at the public Andover High and you get in trouble. Have an issue with alcohol at the private Andover, and they make you president of the United States.

  2. Bruce Coulson

    Clearly, the lesson is that what is required from citizens is unthinking, blind obedience to the rules at all times, even if following the rules conflicts with the intended goal of the rules. The sooner students understand their place as unthinking cogs in society, the better everything will be.

    And if following the rules means harm to your friends, well, you need to abandon your friends.

      1. Dan

        Another lesson is that you should look out for yourself and your own record at all costs and don’t help others if it is slightly complicated (on the one hand, I don’t want my friend to die in a crash, on the other hand, rules are rules). I honestly think that this is contributing to a generation of self-interested, selfish jerks.

  3. Joe

    It’s interesting that the “principled stand regarding alcohol” that the school is taking appears to be that the person who was NOT involved in drinking, and in fact was trying to get another person away from the alcohol, needs to be punished. It’s almost as if there’s no principle there at all.

    Also, demotion and suspension from the volleyball team could have bigger ramifications than some might think. For example, it could easily impact whether she is able to play volleyball in college, or even get a scholarship to do so (I have no idea if she’s that good, but it is certainly a possibility).

  4. George B

    And of course the rules do not apply to the administration. In Northern VA a few years back a Superintendent of Schools got busted on DUI. She was punished….. with a contract renewal and raise.

    As for Ms. Cox, I can only hope some clueful college admissions officer reads the story, and asks her to apply.

  5. Dan

    I read through this again and realized something- this all occurred “off campus” and had basically nothing to do with the school as far as I can tell. As the kids these days like to say, WTF?

    1. SHG Post author

      You missed that line in the post? Yes, this was on her own time, but the school policy says they rule it all because it’s so principled.

      1. Dan

        I missed it in the first go-round because I was thinking North Andover High School was the fancy Andover and so the kids kind of are under their supervision even outside of class.

        Anyway, I’m waiting for a case where this wonderful policy bumps up into sacramental wine.

  6. Canvasback

    Ecclesiastes had it right, there is nothing new under the sun. Here’s Mark Twain on school boards: “God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.” That was over 100 years ago. Incidentally, he also turned his wit and principle against the police corruption and abuse he saw as a journalist in San Francisco in the mid-1860s. We’ll have to be saved individually, because as a group we just echo the past.

  7. Marc R

    Zero Tolerance is great for public school administrators. None of the numerous Vice Principals, all paid more than teachers yet having no substantive duties, need to make “tough” decisions. Should we meet with the parents and student to see what, if any, punishment is deserved? Nope, she said the word alcohol while at her younger brother’s Bar Mitzvah! Kick her out!

    I had a Zero Tolerance case involving violence in a FL public high school. You gotta protect the kids. If 4 kids pound on one prone student repeatedly, well that kid on the ground just needs to find a faculty or staff member and report the violence. Trying to punch at the gang’s feet as they’re stomping you, while viable self-defense in an state, is just another violent, non-tolerated act. The principal, and the the school board after a hearing, refused to lift this beatdown student’s expulsion. I mean, it will open the floodgates.

    Even though no faculty/staff initially protected the student, he should have reported his beating mid-beatdown rather than try to defend his physical existence from being stomped out. The prosecutor dropped the charges against that student, because of course the school had everyone arrested. But neither the law nor logic could keep that student in his normal high school.

    The concept of zero tolerance should make an rational person physically ill. And the news has exposed it’s absurdity almost daily, yet no reform is occurring.

  8. Kitty

    As was written (by Woody Allen I believe), “Those who can – do. Those who can’t – teach. And those who can’t teach – teach gym.” Perhaps that saying should be expanded by adding, “Those who can’t even teach gym, or otherwise exercise any common sense whatsoever – should become school administrators.”

  9. Jesse

    Wouldn’t a zero-tolerance policy of this scope necessarily include the home of any student that contained alcohol period? I mean, any student who enters their home where a parent may have alcohol stored would ipso facto be in violation due to their proximity to liquor and the ostensible policy of the home to allow it to be used by anyone therein.

    Seems that the parents should also have to refrain from using or posessing alcohol in their homes to avoid breaking the rule.

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