After drunk students, Montgomery Co. school board reviews conduct policy

WASHINGTON — A school system’s decision to allow six students to graduate — despite reports they had allegedly went to their prom drunk — has generated a policy review.

The Montgomery County Board of Education’s Policy Management Committee held a meeting Tuesday to discuss possible changes to the way schools handle situations where students have violated the student code of conduct.

As part of the discussion, the school board committee looked at how other districts handle drinking and alcohol use by students. In Anne Arundel County, for example, students who violate the board’s policies on alcohol — or other controlled substances — are barred from taking part in all senior activities, including commencement. In Fairfax County, students can be suspended from taking part in all school-sponsored activities, but graduation isn’t mentioned specifically. In Howard County, graduating seniors can appeal a decision to be barred from graduation ceremonies.

The Montgomery County policy actually discourages principals from barring students from commencement, and Deb Ford, the PTSA president at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, thinks that’s a mistake. Being able to use attendance at the graduation ceremony as leverage over seniors “is truly the only thing that will resonate with high school students,” Ford said.

“Anything else, they can just blow off,” she added.

One of the board of education members, Phil Kauffman, asked Andrew Zuckerman, chief operating officer for the schools, whether under the current policies, all instances of alcohol use by students should be reported as a serious incident.

Zuckerman responded, “I believe that they generally are.”

That generated some concern from Kauffman who noted that in the 2014-2015 school year, there were a total of 11 instances of alcohol use by students. “I have to believe that there’s a whole lot more where principals are aware of alcohol use that’s not getting reported,” he added.

Board member Patricia O’Neil said underage drinking isn’t just a school problem — it’s a community problem, and one that’s been around for a long time. She noted that back in the 1990s, the principal at the time of Walt Whitman High School told her at the annual senior banquet, “There were so many kids that were so drunk, they were throwing up at the table.”

Another member, Rebecca Smondrowski, worried about the broader impact of barring kids from attending their own commencement ceremonies. “For me, graduating is more about the family than it is about the student; frequently families have people fly in from different areas,” she said.

O’Neil jumped on that point: “Yes, it is about the whole family,” but she added, the bottom line is that when a student drinks alcohol “they have broken the law!”

Kauffman said, “Personally, I think what we have now is broken. I don’t think it’s working.”

In May, a principal’s decision to ban six seniors of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School from commencement after they reportedly appeared drunk at the school’s prom was overruled by then-interim School Superintendent Larry Bowers. His decision sparked debate on both sides of the issue, with many parents supporting Principal Donna Redmond-Jones, who was in her first year as principal of the school.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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