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A principal has egg on her face…

June 14, 2016, 6:10 AM

As someone who was on the receiving end of some pretty unfair punishments in school, and having witnessed school officials blatantly flout the rules on a number of occasions, it’s good to see someone get called out for a punishment that’s out of step with policy.  This was the culmination of a controversy regarding several students’ drinking alcohol on prom night at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School‘s senior prom, and the reversal of a decision that would have prevented them from attending their high school graduation.

The situation, as I understand it based on a Bethesda Magazine article and a Washington Post article, began with a policy set at the school level regarding consequences for students’ showing up for prom while impaired by alcohol or other various substances, or becoming impaired by the same over the course of the evening, encompassing the prom itself as well as the official after-prom party.  The school’s policy was that anyone who either was caught drinking at prom-related activities, or showed up to same already drunk, would not be allowed to walk at the school’s June 1 graduation at DAR Constitution Hall.  This is supported by a prom guest application document from the school’s website, where the relevant section, near the bottom of the second page, reads:

Students and/or guests who are suspected of being under the influence of alcohol, inhalants, illegal drugs or controlled substances will not be admitted to Prom or After Prom.  Students attending Prom or After Prom who show signs of being under the influence of such substances, or who are found to be in possession of such substances during either event, will be subjected to the consequences set forth in the B-CC Student Handbook, and their parents will be notified.  If the student is part of an athletic team or other school-sponsored activity, the coach/sponsor will be notified as well.  Note that any senior who is determined to be under the influence or in possession of such substances when arriving at or during the course of Prom or After Prom will not participate in the on-stage distribution of diplomas at B-CC’s graduation ceremony.

According to the Bethesda article, this was “reinforced at multiple meetings with seniors and parents throughout the year.”  I found the proviso on the third page in a PDF of a Powerpoint presentation from the school’s website as well.

The hope, of course, is that it’s just a threat, and that everyone will have a nice, alcohol-free prom night.  After all, these are, for the most part, 17 and 18-year-olds.  In other words, they’re underage.  Say what you will about where the legal drinking age should be set (I think it should be 18), but at the moment, it’s 21.  And unfortunately, not everyone kept things dry, as six students got nailed for alcohol violations at the prom.  And, as promised, they were excluded from participating in the graduation ceremony.

However, you take away a student’s ability to walk across the stage to receive their diploma, there are other stakeholders who will get upset, and rightly so.  Everyone wants to see little Johnny graduate high school, after all.  And the families of some of the affected students made formal appeals to the superintendent.  That led to a reversal of the ban by Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers, announced via a letter to the senior class.  The letter, in a nutshell, says that while the superintendent supports the efforts of the school to promote safe and healthy decision making and the like, the graduation ban is not allowed per district policy, and therefore cannot stand.

In other words, the principal, Dr. Donna Redmond-Jones, enacted an illegal rule (illegal in the context of the school district, mind you), and her illegal rule was overturned.

Public reaction, based on the comments left on the Bethesda Magazine article and elsewhere, was basically along the lines of vilifying the superintendent and the affected students, and holding the principal up as some sort of martyr.  Here are some examples of the comments that the article received:

“Bowers’ actions do not match his words.  He undermined Principal Jones’ good judgement and authority.  I would say his handling of this affair was cowardly.”

“While I certainly understand the need to have the Superintendent have final say on disciplinary matters in light of disparate treatment of certain students by certain principals, this is egregious on the part of Bowers.  What we are talking about here is a matter of life or death decisions by our students.  Drinking during school events or showing up to them drunk should not be tolerated and heavy discipline should be enacted to discourage such potentially dangerous behavior by other students.  This drinking thing with our kids is out of control and enough of them have lost their lives already due to it.  Bowers’ message is wrongheaded here and undermines Dr. Redmond-Jones’ good spirited and caring intent.”

“Students and parents were informed of this decision prior to prom.  It was made clear.  The principal’s decision should have stuck.  Another example of not holding individuals accountable for actions.”

All of these comments contain the same mistaken logic: that the principal is the end-all when it comes to schools.  The principal may be the highest-ranking individual that reports to a school facility on a daily basis, but they’re not the CEO.  They can’t set any policy that they want.  The principal is bound to rules, just like the students are.  In this case, the principal fell afoul of district policy JFA, which is titled “Student Rights and Responsibilities”.  The relevant passage is item 13 in section C.  That reads as follows:

Local school staff, in collaboration with students and parents, shall develop, implement, and enforce disciplinary standards and procedures which may limit or restrict participation in extracurricular or other school-related activities or events.  Exclusion from commencement ceremonies may not be included in local school policies; however, principals retain the authority to exclude students from participation in commencement ceremonies for cause on a case-by-case basis.

What this does is place the graduation ceremony in a special category.  While it allows for students to be banned from attending graduation, it also says that such a sanction may not be included as a matter of policy, but may only be invoked on an individual basis.  By including the graduation ban in the prom agreement and such, the principal had, intentionally or not, included the ceremony in local school policies, which goes against the JFA policy.

One Reddit commenter asked, “[W]hy was she the first principal whose decision was overturned after all of these years of other principals doing the same thing?”  It seems to parallel very closely to real life.  In real life, an unconstitutional law could be on the books and enforced for many years before someone challenges it in court.  However, once challenged, a law can be thrown out by the courts as unconstitutional.  The same thing happened here, but on the administrative side of things rather than judicial.  The policy causing the sanction was challenged, and it was thrown out as violative of district policy.  And if the superintendent hadn’t overturned the bad local policy, then the parents would have almost certainly filed a lawsuit, and the graduation ban would have been overturned in court, citing district policy JFA as the reason why.  Large sums of money in damages might have resulted, and I don’t know if that would have been the best use of district funds.

Now this is not to say that the students should not have been punished.  According to Bowers, the students “received appropriate consequences under our discipline policy.”  I don’t know what the sanctions were, as the school district, understandably, is unable to speak about individual student discipline.  And considering that the prom took place on May 6 and graduation was on June 1, there was plenty of time to implement whatever punishments were necessary and get everyone to graduation.  And in the case of an alcohol violation, several days’ suspension would not be out of line by any means, which could have significant consequences for a senior in their final month of school – more so than missing a ceremony – as well as aim the punishment directly at the students in question, rather than punishing family members who themselves did nothing wrong.  A graduation ban also seems to turn drinking at prom into an unforgivable sin, which I think is a bit over the top.  After all, at the conclusion of the graduation ceremony, everyone goes their separate ways, and the class will not be together again for a very long time, if ever.  Where a suspension or similar short-term punishment says, “You made a mistake, and we will issue sanctions for it, but then will welcome you back when it’s over,” a graduation ban says, “You messed up so badly that we can never forgive you for this.  You’re out of the family.”  I don’t think this rises to that level of seriousness.

I think that the overarching lesson to be learned here is that the rules apply to everyone, and everyone must operate within the rules, regardless of rank or title.  Too often, school personnel openly flout the rules.  Whether or not this was a deliberate flouting of the rules is unknown, but I consider it unlikely that it was intentional, especially considering that the original punishment was somewhat common in Montgomery County high schools, though not universal (though I’ll bet it’s seen its last year of use anywhere in the county).  However, intentional or not, school personnel got caught breaking the rules, and a correction was issued.  I think that this is perhaps a more important lesson than the original.  The principal is not some omnipotent authority figure.  While they are authorized to mete out discipline for rule violations, they themselves are subject to rules as well, which are equally important to follow.  The principal chose, whether intentionally or not, to deviate from the rules.  And consequences came out of that deviation – in this case making the principal look foolish for prescribing an illegal punishment.

With graduation bans now effectively off of the table for prom-related alcohol violations in Montgomery County, hopefully this leads to an intelligent discussion (as compared to these the-principal-is-the-ultimate-authority article comments) about what the best sorts of sanctions are for people who drink during prom and other school events.  After all, people in this age group engage in enough risky behavior as it is, without adding alcohol into the mix.  We want to encourage responsible decision making so that these kids can survive into adulthood and look back on their teen years and say, “Wow, what was I thinking back then?”  Progress as a community on how to best handle those instances where students opt to break the rules in these instances, and how to handle responsible decision-making during prom season in general, should be the legacy of this incident.