By: ATHENA FOSLER-BRAZIL
Forty-one percent of Carmel High School juniors reported using drugs or alcohol in the past month, according to the most recent California Healthy Kids survey for the 2014-15 school year. Twenty-four percent of all 11th graders reported being drunk or high on campus at least once.
“Many of my friends do drugs on a daily basis,” one CHS sophomore boy says. “The peer pressure is very strong.”
While it’s no secret that drug use is prevalent in American high schools, many CHS students don’t fully understand school policies or how drug-related issues are handled after they get caught.
“It’s very black and white,” CHS assistant principal Craig Tuana says. “If you’re under the influence or in possession, no matter how much, it’s the same consequence.”
Tuana goes on to explain that administration has authority over students from the time they leave home in the morning to when they return home after school.
The consequence for any substance-related infraction is explained in the student handbook as well. Any drug-or alcohol-related infraction is punished by a five-day suspension, inability to participate in sports, the contacting of the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office and the option of participation in the Power Forward program, which reduces the suspension by three days and expunges the infraction from the student’s disciplinary record.
The policy seems clear to administrators, but many students still don’t understand aspects of it.
“I didn’t know that you could get in trouble for doing stuff before school or after school,” one senior girl says. “They don’t make that clear enough.” This senior has dealt with drug-related investigations and punishments, noting that, “They’ve gotten so many kids in trouble for that this year, but they haven’t even talked about it that much.”
Some CHS students feel that the policy should be made clearer, specifically rules regarding when the school has authority over students.
“If we have reasonable suspicion, we can search [a student],” says Tuana regarding protocol during investigations.
The office says they take appropriate measures to thoroughly decide whether the student is guilty, and oftentimes find the students they call in to be clean.
While some students express concern over how investigations are handled, others are concerned about the impact of their punishments. Another senior girl punished for a drug-related infraction expresses frustration regarding the effectiveness of her punishment, thinking it had more negative effects than positive ones.
“The suspension made my grades drop,” she says. “I went from a 4.4 GPA to a 3.8 in two days. I had to get all that back up.”
The issue of eligibility for sports also upset this student, as she felt like it was counterproductive to take something healthy and structured from her life during a stressful time.
“I’m not a terrible kid,” the senior explains regarding her removal from her team. “I play three sports…. I mess up one time, and they’re going to take one good thing that I have to distract me from this and take that away.”
Athletic director Golden Anderson explains that student-athletes are held to a contract, signed at the beginning of each season, agreeing to abstain from drugs and alcohol regardless of their past history as a student or athlete and, furthermore, that all drug-related cases are handled the same way.
“They don’t reward or penalize based on grades or ability on the field,” Anderson says. “They treat that situation like, ‘You’re all student-athletes, and this is what you agreed to before starting your season.’”
One junior girl says of the policy, “That will definitely teach people a lesson, but it’s also very severe because I feel like it’s just sort of unlucky…because so many kids use [drugs] but never think about getting caught and punished.”
The senior student-athlete mentioned previously was hoping to get scholarship offers for her sport and is concerned about how her removal from the team affects her chances, although both college counselor Darren Johnston and the athletic director express that disciplinary infractions should have minimal effect on eligibility for scholarships.
Fears of their disciplinary records affecting college admissions and eligibility are something both seniors express and is a concern that Johnston hears relatively frequently.
“The [Universities of California] and [California State Universities] have no way of knowing,” Johnston says. “If it’s not self-reported by the student, they will never find out from CHS.”
Private schools and some out-of-state schools do have the right to ask students to disclose disciplinary information on their applications. Santa Clara University admissions officer Lorenzo Gamboa explains that it is a direct violation of the student’s contract if they do not disclose the information. Santa Clara is a Jesuit school, and they take drug and alcohol infractions more seriously than non-Catholic schools.
“It is part of the moral character that is being called into question,” Bamboa says regarding drug use in high school.
While the school does take these issues seriously, Gamboa notes that they also look into the circumstances of the infraction and try to understand how, when and why it happened. Unlike the CHS punishment policy, these issues are looked at on a case-by-case basis.
Johnston reaffirms Gamboa’s assertion there is no across-the-board policy when a disciplinary infraction appears on an application, and the way a university interprets it is entirely subjective. The counselor also emphasizes counselors’ ability to advocate for the student and the sway they have when reporting issues to admissions officers.
“Counselors don’t have a lot of leeway in determining what we report…but we do have considerable flexibility with how the story is told,” Johnston explains. “My overall take is don’t make a poor decision that could have any future ramifications on your post-secondary pursuits, but if you do, don’t think that suddenly your options have all been taken away from you.”
While this insight might come as a relief to students dealing with drug- and alcohol-related cases, Johnston also expresses the less direct but still considerable impact involvement in these issues has on students in and out of the classroom.
“Reputation matters far more than most students could possibly imagine, especially in small communities,” Johnston says. “We know our students, we talk about our students, and a lot of what we know is based on what we see and what we hear outside of the classroom.”
Having a good track-record with teachers, counselors and administrators matters considerably in their motivation to advocate for a student if an issue occurs.
One way to supposedly eliminate the issue of reporting infractions at all during the application process is to participate in the Power Forward program that CHS provides. Power Forward is unique to CHS, run by support counselor Lauren Capano and includes four group counselling sessions and three drug tests over the course of multiple months, the last of which must be entirely clean.
“The goal of the program is more insight building, reflection, some psychoeducation and just some personalized drug and alcohol education,” says Capano, who comes at the program from a therapeutic angle and tailors the program to the needs of the group.
One senior who was suspended during the first semester participates in the program, but doesn’t think it is effective. This, she says, is primarily because the timing of her punishment as she believes that she has to disclose the infraction when filling out her Common Application for private and out-of-state schools.
However, Tuana argues that this is not the case, and that even for seniors applying to colleges before the infraction is expunged, Power Forward should render the suspension a non-issue. From this, it seems there is a lack of clarity between students and administrators.
Both students who have and have not been involved in drug-related punishments agree that counseling and talking to someone on campus are effective ways of understanding individual cases and the student body as a whole.
“This was a time that I needed help from people more than anything,” a senior girl says of her experience. “I was going through a rough stage, and I think all my teachers noticed that.”
Sophomore Thomas Fontenay, who has not been involved in any drug-related disciplinary issues, suggests some ways to adjust the policy to more benefit the students: “Maybe counseling, some way to talk to the student because there may be things happening below the surface that a general rule can’t address.”
Within the student population, there is disagreement over whether aspects of the policy are fair.
“I think it’s fair,” sophomore Dylan Cohan, who has not been involved in any disciplinary action, says regarding the suspension policy. “It’s unfortunate, but what happens happens.”
Sophomore Mia Kotelec, also uninvolved in any drug-related cases, thinks changes should be made to when school has authority over students.
“I don’t know if there’s anything the school can do to prevent it,” Kotelec says. “Unless it’s drugs at school, the parents should have to deal with it, not the school.”