When should high school students be banned from graduation as punishment?
June 6, 2016
By: Donna St. George
When seniors at Walt Whitman High School cross the stage during graduation ceremonies Wednesday, at least one student will be missing. Principal Alan Goodwin has taken a tough stance on underage drinking, and one teenager who broke the rules will be sitting out.
“The message is out there that there will be consequences,” Goodwin said. “If they drink at prom or post-prom, they don’t walk at graduation.”
Such hard-line approaches at Montgomery County’s public schools have prompted heated debate this graduation season after the superintendent’s decision to overrule another principal who took a similar position.
Donna Redmond Jones, principal at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, had told students for months that if they drank or used drugs on prom night they would lose their chance to participate in commencement. Jones disciplined six seniors who drank on prom night, May 6.
But as the June 1 graduation day approached, interim superintendent Larry A. Bowers overturned Jones’s decision to bar them from graduation ceremonies.
“I did not reach this decision lightly,” Bowers said in a letter to school families, noting that the students received other consequences and that he looked at circumstances and board policy as he considered the cases.
In a county that has struggled with underage drinking parties and fatal alcohol-related crashes, there was a wave of shock and anger. For many, it is less about a graduation ban than about frustration with a culture of teen drinking — and the thwarted efforts of a principal who tried to draw a line.
Many parents say they believe that Jones was trying to set clear expectations — and enforce the rules with clear penalties — while working to deter potentially dangerous behavior.
It was just a year ago that nearby Wootton High lost two Class of 2015 graduates in an alcohol-related crash that followed an underage drinking party. The driver in the Wootton crash faces sentencing this week after pleading guilty in April to two counts of vehicular manslaughter.
B-CC’s PTSA voted Thursday night to send a petition to the school board asking that it provide greater clarity on its policy and how it is implemented to provide consistency across the county. The organization wrote that it supports Jones’s year-long effort to educate students about substance abuse and her move to enforce consequences when students use drugs or alcohol at school events.
“We don’t understand why certain principals are allowed to exclude students from commencement ceremonies while others are not,” PTSA President Deb Ford said.
Many community members and school staffers think that the principal was undermined in her efforts to protect students, Ford said.
In his letter, Bowers said that district policy generally prohibits schools from using exclusion from graduation in disciplinary procedures. But he said that principals have authority to exclude students from commencements “for cause, on a case-by-case basis.”
Maryland education officials have in recent years taken steps against zero-tolerance policies in student discipline, saying that school officials should consider offenses individually. But Ford said parents find it hard to understand the reasoning that led to Bowers’s ruling.
“We want clarity on this,” Ford said. “We’re in the dark. Why didn’t he give Dr. Jones an opportunity to provide a case-by-case rationale?”
Montgomery officials said they could not discuss the B-CC cases, citing privacy rules. But discipline needs to be applied according to individual circumstances, said Derek Turner, a Montgomery schools spokesman. At B-CC, there was “an inadvertent breach” by not doing so, he said. Bowers and Jones declined to comment.
“Each incident is taken on a case-by-case basis, and we have to look at the totality of the circumstances, including students’ past behavior, interest in restorative justice and other factors,” Turner said.
A majority of the six students’ families appealed the punishment, Turner said, which may not be true in similar cases at other schools. The school system supports Jones’s efforts and will “stand with her as she continues to deal with the issue of alcohol use in her community,” Turner said.
“I think what we all want to do is move forward, learn the lessons from this incident, and address a culture of alcohol use and substance abuse connected to school events,” Turner said.
Board of Education President Michael Durso posted a statement Friday night on the system’s website saying the B-CC decision “in no way sends a message that we are not serious about combatting the issue” of alcohol use.
The school system supports national and state efforts to move away from zero-tolerance discipline, he said, but school leaders also understand that consequences are needed to send a strong message about the dangers of underage drinking.
“We believe we can tackle both underage drinking and remain true to our beliefs about appropriate and progressive discipline,” Durso said.
Ford and others say the county needs to have a larger conversation.
“I think this incident should be used as an impetus to have a countywide discussion about what to do to keep kids safe — both education and consequences,” said Goodwin, the principal at Whitman, who has held the post for 12 years and drew wide notice last fall for imploring the parents in his high-performing school to stop hosting drinking parties.
Goodwin said there are at least six high schools in Montgomery where principals bar students from participating in commencement as a consequence for drinking at prom.
He said he has done so at Whitman for about a decade, restricting about a dozen students from commencement. Many cases resulted in appeals to district officials but were not overturned, he said. This year, the student did not appeal.
Sharon Agranov, president of the PTSA at Sherwood High, said 12 students at the Sandy Spring, Md., school were disciplined for being under the influence of alcohol on prom night. She said missing graduation had not been presented as a possible consequence.
Agranov posted a story about the B-CC incident on her Facebook page and got passionate reactions from other parents who did not like the idea that the school district went back on actions the principal had repeatedly emphasized would be the penalty for breaking the rules.
“How are they going to learn what consequences mean?” she asked.