A draft of safety and substance abuse policy changes for Cambridge Rindge & Latin School is being questioned by elected officials. (Photo: John Phelan)

Kids who feel school safety and substance abuse policies can be unfair, crazy or cruel would have been happy to hear School Committee debate last month, when committee members worried that certain policies up for revision were indeed headed in that direction. The same kids may want to be on hand July 31, when the policies return for a second reading before approval.

Policies on assaults, weapons, sexual harassment, abuse of alcohol and drugs and tobacco are all being looked at, with committee members worrying that they catch the innocent up with the guilty and punish harshly without reasonable recourse for appeal.

“I’m not really interested in punishing kids. I’d rather get them help,” said Alice Turkel, leading a conversation June 5 with widespread agreement from fellow committee members.

Yet the changes, resulting from a process begun a little more than a year ago to look at policies that have been in place for a decade, include:

  • A student who is found by a school official with another student who is drinking can be suspended, even if they’re trying to tell the student who is drinking to stop, member Patty Nolan noted, and an entire team could be suspended if one member was found breaking the rules on school transportation. Turkel added that a student could be suspended if they loan a phone to someone who uses it to break a rule or law, such as arranging to buy drugs, even if they had no idea how the phone would be used.
  • Horseplay and play fighting get increased punishments and, with “rowdiness,” are paired with “attempted use of violence, teen dating violence and unreasonably dangerous athletic technique.” “I’m really uncomfortable leaving in that language to suggest that if you engage in horseplay it’s at the same level as these others, and I don’t know why it’s in there,” Nolan said.
  • Similarly, the policy’s list of weapons include school items such as pencils or scissors that are thrown across the room. “We seem to lump them together,” Nolan said. Committee member Mervan Osborne called severe punishment “in the case of a thrown eraser” a reason for why “you do need discretion, to be able to say, ‘No, no, you don’t go home for five days’ … it can be very frustrating when the discretion is not there.”
  • Committee members were all put off at what looked liked mandatory minimums for punishment, even for first offenses, and Nolan recalled talking about these policies more than a year ago with fellow members Richard Harding and Marc McGovern and remarking that in the cases they were seeing, every offender was getting the maximum punishment. A standard proposed suspension is 10 days, or two weeks of school, and a “10-day suspension is far more significant when you’re taking a half-year class than when you’re taking a yearlong class. How much is really reasonable for a student to miss?” McGovern asked.

There was also concern that while members wanted to help students who were getting into trouble, the proposed policies seemed to go in the opposite direction.

“There are some deletions here that refer to interventions around abuse. Maybe some of that type of language needs to be kept or reintroduced in an another way,” Osborne said, comparing the current policy with the proposed changes.

It was fine bringing the policies to a second reading, McGovern said, but for him to support them “I do want to see language put back in for support programs. Sending a kid home for five days with no intervention does absolutely nothing to resolve the problem, nothing. What can we do to really get to the root cause of whatever the violation was for that particular student? That’s going to have to be in there.”

They worried also that students and families would be caught by surprise by policies that were almost too extensive and at the same time woefully unclear. Turkel confessed that in reading the booklet explaining the policies she “struggled and skimmed a bit.”

“Let’s face it, guys, let’s be real,” she said. “To think that every kid in the high school is reading through all this, it’s not real.”

When students are in trouble and face an appeal hearing with their parents, the rules are again somewhat opaque, McGovern said. There’s little understanding for the burden of proof, leading parents to go in to face a panel of school officials without knowing if they need to bring letters from doctors, therapists or teachers.

Advice from officials

At the suggestion of vice chairman Fred Fantini, officials will speak with the committee to give a sense of how much discretion they need or should have in punishing students caught doing such things as smoking or using drugs or alcohol. Henrietta Davis, who leads the committee as mayor, was able to offer some insight. She served on the 1988-95 committees, when a weapons policy was first adopted, and explained that school officials were given limited discretion on punishment to avoid the possibility of race playing a role, or of accusations that it did.

The two black members of the committee suggested there were some unintended consequences to that, with Osborne worrying that the lack of discretion resulted in the “criminalizing of our kids” and remarking that the policy “does feel very punitive. There’s precious little referral to interventions that are not punitive, and it needs to be more obvious that we are about intervening if we feel a kid is heading down a certain path to abuse. There are those wild and crazy days kids have in high school, and it doesn’t mean they need to be expelled or sent out of school for 10 days or failed for the quarter.”

“That leaves an impression on a new family reading this, and the language could be reexamined,” Osborne said.

Harding, meanwhile, wondered how school officials could be fairly asked to handle the responsibility.

“It’s a tough, tough determination to be made. Oftentimes kids are in groups and to find a bottle or a joint or whatever it may be, and to sometimes just indict someone for being in the presence — I don’t see how someone can make that determination fairly and not arbitrarily on a consistent basis,” Harding said. “I would love to hear how that happens. I don’t know how you would possibly do that. We’re coming back from basketball practice, something happens, whatever that is, and whoever’s with us may have something in their backpacks. How do the 15 of us now become indicted because we’re in the presence of whatever it is? I just don’t know what training teachers or other school personnel would have to do that. I believe this would be hard for police officers who have extensive training.”

The meeting hearing these issues again is scheduled for 6 p.m. July 31 in the committee meeting room at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, 459 Broadway.