School's Bid To Punish Off-Campus Acts Draws Suit A New Jersey school district is being sued for disciplining students caught drinking at weekend parties. Opponents say it potentially violates students' constitutional rights to punish them at school for off-campus behavior that does not affect school safety.
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School's Bid To Punish Off-Campus Acts Draws Suit

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School's Bid To Punish Off-Campus Acts Draws Suit

School's Bid To Punish Off-Campus Acts Draws Suit

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Public schools are increasingly disciplining students for the trouble they get into away from school. It's raising the hackles of parents, who say it's their job to discipline their children for problems that occur off campus. Now, a New Jersey school district is being sued for punishing students who are caught drinking at weekend parties.

Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON: In 2007, two Haddonfield students died from alcohol poisoning. Then, at one 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 principal and disciplined there as well.

Mr. MATTHEW WOLF (Attorney): It's simply a vigilante system of justice established by a school board, in violation of the Constitution of the United States.

SOLOMON: Matthew Wolf is the attorney representing the parents of two 15-year-old girls who were arrested at separate parties in the last year. Their cases are still pending in juvenile court, but the school has already suspended the girls 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.

Mr. WOLF: If a student has stabbed another student outside of the school, or has 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.

SOLOMON: But the case is further complicated by the punishment. Haddonfield only suspends students from extracurricular activities - athletics, student government, school play. School Board President Steve Weinstein says that's a far cry from violating constitutional rights.

Mr. STEVE WEINSTEIN (School Board President): This is not a criminal proceeding. 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.

SOLOMON: The code of conduct specifically prohibits students from consuming alcohol or drugs away from school.

On a recent afternoon, I found Justin Janowski, a 10th grader, at a coffee shop in Haddonfield. He 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.

Mr. JUSTIN JANOWSKI: I mean, when I was a wrestler and played football, like, that's one thing I didn't want to do - is to get kicked off the team for like, bad grades or, like, I dont know, getting caught smoking cigarettes outside of school. So I just didn't do it. I stayed good.

SOLOMON: 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's 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.

Professor PAUL HIRSCHFIELD (Rutgers University): 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.

SOLOMON: Hirschfield prefers schools to take a more individual approach with discipline. That encourages students to make amends and learn from their mistakes.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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