Thursday, February 13, 2003

Parents talk circles around teen drinking

Published in the Current

Cape Superintendent Tom Forcella told about 70 people crowded into the Town Council chambers Feb. 6 to discuss teens, alcohol abuse and school policies that in terms of teen drinking Cape is “the most accepting” community he has seen and the culture needs to change.

The forum, hosted by the Cape Coalition, was entitled “Contracts and Consequences,” a subject of widespread community discussion in the wake of the suspensions of a basketball star and hockey player from their teams following a huge party at Sugarloaf over New Year’s.

“We wanted to try to provide a forum” for discussing in a larger group what is already being talked about in small groups around town, Coalition co-chairman Terry Johnson said. He wanted people to “start to agree on a fair and consistent message” to send teens about drinking, but that did not emerge from the meeting.

Parents and teens were present in droves, and high school Principal Jeff Shedd was there, as was Superintendent Forcella and School Board member
Kevin Sweeney.

Policy, problem not new
Parents began the discussion by saying they are concerned about preventing a teen-drinking tragedy, but want to have an environment in town and in school where kids could learn from their mistakes, rather than suffer severe consequences on the first or second offense.

A School Board policy that took effect at the beginning of this school year requires student-athletes and their parents to sign a contract saying they have read the rules and agree to abide by them. The consequences of drinking are laid out on paper, with a first offense punishable either by suspension from two games (if a student or the student’s parents tell school officials about the infraction) or for the remainder of the season (if the school finds out about it another way). A second offense results in suspension from all athletic
teams for the remainder of the year.

Shedd announced in December that the rules would be enforced equally for all students involved in extracurricular and co-curricular activities, rather than just for athletes.

Further, students who host parties where drinking occurs, and who do not take steps to break them up (by calling police or parents), could also be in trouble.

Parents and teens alike said the contract had previously been seen as “a joke” and not enforced. Specifically, star athletes’ transgressions had been “winked at,” one adult said. The new enforcement of the rules does not make Shedd popular with students, some of whom expressed concern about how the rules were communicated to them.

Many parents said athletes don’t read the contract before signing, though no student said that was the case. Students did say that increasing coach and team involvement in following the contract would help them do better at it, though several students in the room said they did not drink.

Parents go to bat for teens
A number of parents were concerned that taking away athletics – seen by school officials as a privilege – would put teens more at risk than allowing them to “work their way back” onto a team or activity.

Many parents said the school’s role in this is too big, but Sweeney said the School Board was responding to parents’ demands. Each time something happened with teens and drinking, parents came to the School Board demanding to know what the schools were going to do about it, he said.

As a result, the School Board has supported outdoor education programs in the middle school, DARE programs and this policy, he said.

One parent suggested the school step back and let parents enforce household rules when drinking occurs outside of school events.

Another said the policy makes school officials “policemen” when really they are educators. And, he said, the policy isn’t fixing the problem.

One parent suggested alcohol violations be treated similarly to academic probation, in which a student who is failing a class must come up with a way to bring his or her grades up, and is checked regularly on progress, but is allowed to play sports while working on the problem.

One parent said drinking is different because it is against the law, and allowing kids to get away with drinking is letting them go down a slippery slope to lawbreaking.

Another said parents aren’t enforcing the policy, the law or any other rules. At least 25 kids party “every weekend,” one said. Parents also typically do not show up to Cape Coalition meetings to discuss the issue, according to coalition organizer Liz Weaver. By contrast, students are often at coalition meetings.