If students, parents and administrators don’t respect an honor code, it will not work.
No one at Westbrook High School looks very good after the release of a report on an investigation into how school officials mishandled the probable violation of its athletic honor code last fall.
Administrators look weak, parents look pushy and at least one school board member looks meddlesome. A houseful of teenagers, including football players on their way to a playoff game, look as if they had nothing to fear from breaking the code they had agreed to abide by, and their confidence was justified. In the end, administrators collapsed under pressure, and everybody played.
Westbrook is learning its lesson, but other communities should be paying close attention, too. With the best of intentions, the community developed an alcohol and drug policy that would be difficult to enforce even if students respected it and the adults involved were ready to stand behind it.
When the adults’ resolve crumbled, a policy that was supposed to teach honesty, personal responsibility and discourage substance abuse failed on all counts.
The report, written by John Alfano, a Biddeford labor mediator, couldn’t have been more plain when parceling out the blame:
“(P)arents seem to have been less concerned with their children’s possible misbehavior than their eligibility to play in a football game,” he wrote. “(Administrators) looked for a way out … and the involvement of the school board member’s child caused them to become somewhat fearful for their jobs.”
Ultimately, “there is little support within the school department to enforce the policy, because when it matters parents, administrators and board members don’t have the fortitude to stand behind their decisions.”
Complicating matters is the unusual language in the Westbrook alcohol and drug policy, which treats students who are “knowingly present” at a party where substance abuse is taking place the same as the substance abusers. This puts the burden of proof on administrators to prove not only who was at an off-campus and after-school-hours event but also what they knew – something prosecutors struggle to do, although they have the powers to compel evidence that principals don’t. As any parent knows, taking a tough line on a rule that you can’t enforce doesn’t make you look strong. As this case shows, it’s really the opposite.
But even without the “knowingly present” language, a policy like this is very difficult to enforce without the support of parents – not just at meetings before the season starts but also after their child violates it.
Parents should also be responsible for knowing where their teenagers are and what is going on at their homes when the teens are home alone. Teenagers tend to be adventurous, and many are bad at evaluating risk. Alcohol and drug use by young people can have tragic consequences. It’s up to the adults in their lives to set firm boundaries and good examples.
Parents and school officials can do that best when they work together. If they are not ready to do that, no policy will be strong enough.