In recent years, public schools have been disciplining students for the trouble they get into away from campus. Many schools suspend or expel students who are involved in any kind of violence. And some districts have expanded their involvement to misdeeds surrounding the things kids say online or drug arrests.
Now, a New Jersey school district is being sued for disciplining students who are caught drinking at weekend parties.
'Vigilante System Of Justice'
In 2007, two Haddonfield, N.J., students died from alcohol poisoning. Then, at a wild house party, teenagers sprayed urine across the furniture and defecated in a piano. The affluent Philadelphia suburb reacted by creating an arrangement between the police and the schools: any student arrested for drinking or drug use would be reported to the school and disciplined there as well.
"It's simply a vigilante system of justice established by a school board in violation of the Constitution of the United States," says Matthew Wolf, an attorney representing the parents of two 15-year-old girls arrested at separate parties in the last year.
The girls' cases are still pending in juvenile court, but the school has already suspended them from their athletic teams and required them to do community service and undergo alcohol and drug counseling.
Wolf says the off-campus policy violates the Constitution by duplicating the punishment and meting it out before the kids have gone to court. Also, he says drinking at a party on Saturday night has nothing to do with school safety.
"If a student has stabbed another student outside of school, or stabbed anyone outside the school, we don't contend that the school doesn't have the right to exercise its authority over students who commit serious offenses," says Wolf.
The question is whether drinking at a party on the weekend — or even during the summer — is an offense that is connected to school safety. But the case is further complicated by the punishment. Haddonfield only suspends students from extracurricular activities — athletics, student government, the school play. School board president Steve Weinstein says that's a far cry from violating constitutional rights.
'Code Of Conduct'
"This is not a criminal proceeding," Weinstein says. "We are talking about a code of conduct, which, I want to emphasize, both students and their parents sign before they begin any extracurricular activity, and they've all agreed to it."
The code of conduct specifically prohibits students from consuming alcohol or drugs away from school.
Tenth-grader Justin Janowski says he doesn't like the policy and thinks parents should be the ones making decisions about how to punish their kids outside of school. But he grudgingly admits the policy is effective.
"I mean, when I was a wrestler and played football like that's one thing I didn't want to do was get kicked off the team for getting bad grades. Or I don't know, get caught smoking cigarettes outside of school, so I didn't do it," says Janowksi. "I stayed good."
Janowski attends high school in a nearby district with the same policy. In the past decade, following the Columbine shooting, schools have suspended students for all sorts of misdeeds away from campus — vandalism, minor drug possession or cyber-bullying. Courts have tended to uphold these policies as long as officials can show some connection to school safety. But beyond the legal issues, there is also rigorous debate about whether "zero-tolerance" policies are effective.
Paul Hirschfield of Rutgers University studies and writes about the ways police and jails are increasingly used to deal with school behavior problems. He says suspensions tend to further alienate students rather than reconnect them to learning.
"I see in these cases only an emphasis on suspending privileges — which is a form of punishment — rather than any emphasis on repairing any harms that the students have imposed on their schools," says Hirschfield.
Hirschfield prefers schools take a more individual approach with discipline that encourages students to make amends and learn from their mistakes.