School superintendent Kriner Cash this week blasted a proposed zero-tolerance policy for high school athletes caught using drugs or alcohol, calling it an "ignorant" response to the problem and demanding new consideration of the draft policy.
Mr. Cash also recoiled at an offer by state police to bring drug-sniffing dogs into school, saying it would be a "repugnant" action.
The superintendent's strongly-worded criticisms came at this month's regional high school committee meeting on Monday, where principal Peg Regan reviewed efforts and ideas to deal with student use of illegal substances.
Specifically, Mr. Cash took aim at the hard-line stance adopted last month by the high school athletic council, which recommended mandatory suspension for an entire sports season if a young athlete violates the drug and alcohol policy either on or off school grounds.
The policies in question Monday night pertained only to student athletes participating in after-school sports. School leaders did not take issue with rules that govern the overall student body. (According to those rules, any student caught on campus with drugs, alcohol, tobacco or drug paraphernalia is subject to immediate suspension for up to 10 days.)
The athletic council, formed last fall as a branch of the school council, is made up of four coaches, four parents, eight students, principal Peg Regan, athletic director Russell MacDonald and school committee member Susan Maderias. Neither Mrs. Regan, Mr. MacDonald nor Ms. Madeiras attended the Jan. 16 meeting when the policy was recommended.
The superintendent faulted the athletic council for not seeking out expert advice before drafting a policy recommendation.
"We need good, researched data from people who have studied zero-tolerance policies and how it affects the outcome," said Mr. Cash.
But clearly, the school district's top leader already has formed his own objections to such a policy, arguing that the consequences for high school athletes are too severe and lacking in any follow-up treatment.
"We do not have zero-tolerance policies for our own employees," he said. "If an employee takes a misstep, we're here to help. The employee assistance program is specifically designed to help employees with chemical abuse. Students may have different problems, but we have to segue to help them."
The schools do not condone any illegal substance use, Mr. Cash said, but he suggested that school policies need to take into account the context of Island culture.
"Asking to reconsider a zero-tolerance policy does not mean we are pro-drugs or pro-alcohol. Never and in no way does it mean that," he said. "But we must be very careful not to continue to pound on our young people with increasingly stringent rules and regulations in a community I have yet to hear a clear message from, in a community with tremendous diversity in values and orientation toward use of chemicals that are illegal."
Besides the zero-tolerance component, what troubled Mr. Cash and other members of the school committee was the difficulty in confirming off-campus violations.
"If you think you can enforce this in homes, on cul de sacs and down dirt roads, and say who's using and who isn't, you're fooling yourself," said Mr. Cash. "We should be very humble about rules that have such implications for kids. I'm concerned about false positives and false negatives, people who didn't get caught who did do it and people who do get caught who didn't do it. Those errors are made all the time, and they can damage a person for life."
School committee member Tim Dobel said, "This causes me a lot of concern. It looks like a reiteration of the policy that got us into trouble in the first place."
Mr. Dobel was referring to the school committee action last November, when the board reversed football coach Donald Herman's decision to suspend three players from his team for the season after learning that the athletes had been charged with underage drinking and breaking into a house in Tisbury over the Labor Day weekend.
The parents of one of those players objected to Coach Herman's no-tolerance policy and contract since it exceeded the penalties laid out in the student handbook. The stated chemical health policy in this year's handbook calls for suspension for at least two games for athletes caught with drugs, alcohol or tobacco on campus.
Mr. Dobel said the proposed policy needs review by a lawyer. Without legal input, he said, "This is a prescription for getting us in a lot of trouble and costing us a lot of money."
Mr. Cash vowed to revamp the process of creating this policy and to downplay perceived notions that the school committee is in conflict with the high school coaches. "We are all people in education," he said. "By the end of this thing, we are going to have a thoughtful, fair policy that everyone can live with."
On the topic of drug-sniffing dogs, Mr. Cash was less optimistic and far more caustic. When Mrs. Regan informed the school board that the state police had offered to bring their new canine unit the high school to sniff out drugs, the superintendent said their presence in the school building would be "repugnant."
Mrs. Regan said the school council had a mixed reaction to the suggestion, and while she was not yet sure whether it was a good idea, she could see some merit to it. "We would do it off school hours to check for evidence of drugs in lockers," she said. "It would give us more information, and it could be an excellent preventative if you let students know you're bringing dogs in."
The perception among some parents and Island police, she said, is that drugs are readily available in the school. "Parents tell me that their kids say you can get whatever you want at school," said Mrs. Regan. "I have no real defense for that."
Mr. Cash said that if police dogs were brought into the school, they would have to do more than just sniff around lockers. They would have to inspect school grounds and cars in the parking lot. Elise Chapdelaine, the student representative to the school committee, objected to the idea of dogs looking for drugs in students' cars, saying they are private property.
But the cars are on school grounds, Mr. Cash pointed out.
The committee took no action on the drug-sniffing dogs, but school committee chairman Ralph Friedman tried to frame a larger question around the issue. "To pretend that drugs are not in the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School is absurd," he said. "They are here. Now, what does the community want to do to handle the situation?"