Like teams staking out turf on the ballfield, nearly 30 students, coaches, parents and school administrators this week debated the merits and weaknesses of a proposed zero-tolerance policy for high school athletes caught using drugs, alcohol or tobacco.
Tuesday's meeting of the school athletic council was a scrappy one, but it ended with principal Peg Regan pulling in the reins on the policy-making discussion and proposing a compromise that incorporated elements of both sides.
Instead of a no-tolerance policy that would invoke full-season suspension for anyone caught violating a so-called chemical-free health policy, Mrs. Regan proposed a two-week suspension from the team backed up by mandatory counseling.
"We can take a punitive-slash-therapeutic approach," she said. "We should be enforcing a policy that discourages students from using any alcohol, drugs or tobacco, and I am willing to prosecute students who use off-campus."
More than 500 students at the regional high school participate in sports, and there are some 70 coaches on the athletic staff.
Mrs. Regan's action could spell the end to individual coaches drafting their own team contracts that contain penalties for full-season suspension. But the policy still needs to go before the school council next Wednesday and then on to the regional school committee. Football coach Donald Herman, who uses his own tough contract with players, said, "There's still work to be done."
In January, the athletic council voted to adopt a hard-line policy that called for suspending student athletes for an entire season if they were caught using drugs, alcohol or tobacco either on or off-campus. The goal, some council members said, was to send a strong message to students and give coaches a tool for keeping young athletes healthy and safe.
"You can't simply give a minor slap on the wrist for a violation and expect the policy to be effective," Sam Sherman, coach of the girls varsity ice hockey team and a member of the athletic council, said last month.
But last week, school superintendent Kriner Cash sharply criticized the policy, arguing that a zero-tolerance climate infringes upon student rights and that it is too difficult to confirm off-campus violations. Alcohol and drug use on the Vineyard, Mr. Cash noted, "is an adult epidemic as well as a kid epidemic.
"And we're trying to put all the heavy on the kids. We try to solve complex societal problems with simple, neat solutions."
In essence, these divergent viewpoints formed the bookends for this week's debate. While Mr. Cash opened up the meeting by outlining his objections to zero-tolerance policies, the most powerful attacks on the no-tolerance approach came from students themselves.
One was a senior football player who recounted being kicked off the team for a season when he was a sophomore for violating the substance use rule in the coach's contract.
"I violated the contract, and I just know what I went through personally," he said. "You associate yourself with a sports team. It's part of your identity, and then you're walking down the hallway, and you feel like a loser. You're that kid who got kicked off the team."
Another student, Amy Baynes, said that many athletes don't abide by the contracts and policies but they are just better at not getting caught or being forced to confess to their substance use. "I'm a three-sport athlete, and to a lot of girls, it's a joke. The odds of getting caught are so slim," she said. "It's teaching kids to be sneaky and dishonest."
School committee member Sue Madeiras agreed with these students. "I've heard from other kids that a zero-tolerance policy does this exactly. But doing something that rewards lying is not educating the way I want to see it," she said.
Others, however, saw zero-tolerance policies in a better light, saying they raised the standards for athletes much like the higher academic grades required for athletic eligibility.
"Athletics are a privilege, and you get to choose to be an athlete," said student Elise Chapdelaine. "You're choosing a certain standard for yourself. It's not at all bad if coaches want to hold athletes to a better standard. If a kid is caught and can't play, hopefully it will make them think about it."
The issue of off-campus violations raised considerable disagreement. Mr. Cash called it a "huge can of worms," but Mr. Sherman argued that a policy confined to on-campus action would be pointless since nearly all of the substance use is happening off-campus.
Phil Hale, a council member and the parent of football players, put it in blunt terms. "I know kids who have gotten home safely because a member of the football team was not drinking," he said. "We may never know the success of such a contract, but I'll guarantee you it's saving lives."
Mr. Hale said he and other members of the council decided they could leave the sensitive task of confirming off-campus violations in the hands of school administrators. They should have that discretion, he said.
But this touched off a wave of concern among some who felt that a student's right to privacy could be jeopardized in the process. Mrs. Madeiras said that in some cases, the hospital and Island police have given information to school officials about students who have gotten into trouble with drugs or alcohol. "It's against the law to do that," she said.
Guidance counselor John Fiorito said, "In some cases, we're taking advantage of an Island where these things are shared. We have cases here where [a phone call from police] is how we got the information." Mr. Fiorito said that such information can be used to leverage a confession from a student.
But teacher and coach Mary MacDonald asked, "What's wrong with being honest? They're taking responsibility."
Mr. Cash responded, "They're being punished for being honest." For the superintendent, the critical issue was assuring that students accused of violations are entitled to the same kind of due process afforded adults accused of crimes. "A zero-tolerance policy is too inflexible," he said. "The heart of the matter has to do with student rights."
And Mr. Cash also challenged the notion that such policies really turn the tide on teenage alcohol and drug use. "There's no evidence of cause and effect between zero-tolerance and improved student behavior," he said.
But one student, who admitted to struggling with drug and alcohol use, did come forward to say that as a football player under Coach Herman's no-tolerance contract, he understood that the coach cared about the players.
"They're looking out for the athletes," he said. "People don't understand how quick you can lose control with substances."