The Herald, Sharon,
PA Published Tuesday, March 9, 1999


School daze: How districts deal with substance abuse
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Drug, alcohol violations are in all schools
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(photo illustration
by Jean Neice/Herald)


By Jeff Greenburg
Herald Sports Editor

Mike Battles was probably no different than many high school students as he entered his senior year last fall at Greenville High School.

A standout wrestler who had advanced to the Northwest Regional Class AA Tournament in 1998, Battles had goals of taking it a step further - to the PIAA AA state tournament - this season.

That goal, he certainly must have hoped, would also help him continue his academic career on the collegiate level.

Then, last November, one day after practice had begun for the Greenville High wrestling team, Battles ran afoul of the law for drinking and driving.

His life hasn't been the same since. And, perhaps, neither has the issue of just how to deal with athletes in similar situations. It's an issue that has subsequently caused a firestorm of varying responses throughout all parts of Mercer County.

Based upon established school policy in Greenville, Battles' violation of the law for alcohol usage called for his removal from the wrestling team for the remainder of the season. It was a punishment some believed to be harsh and unforgiving.

Others, however, have been supportive of the district's decision. That policy, they say, sends a clear message that alcohol use will not be tolerated. The same can be said for illegal drugs.

The use of both drugs and alcohol by student-athletes, in fact, is addressed via written policies by all 14 high schools in the county.

All call for some sort of punishment of the athlete. And while there certainly are similarities among the local districts' policies, there are also many differences.

Not only are there differences between districts, within each district exists a variety of issues that can affect the type and severity of punishment meted out.

Among the major factors that can affect that severity of punishment are:

Whether the violation occurs on campus - that is, on school property, at school-sponsored events or even when a student is en route to an event - or off campus.

Whether the violation occurs in season or out of season.

Whether the violation occurs during the calendar school year or outside of the school year.

Based upon the above factual situations, the school district will then proceed in the appropriate manner, one, of course, that's provided for in a policy handbook.

Almost all school districts provide for severe sanctions for on-campus infractions. It is when the infractions occur off campus that there is some variation in the severity. It is in those situations that some schools rely on district-wide policies, policies not open to interpretation by individual sport's coaches, to deal with the violators. Other districts, however, may allow the individual coach to make a determination of the athlete's status when an off-campus violation occurs.

Needless to say, there are innumerable possibilities that can occur and certainly no district can account for all of them. All try to deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis.

"It always depends on each individual situation," said Hermitage Superintendent Dr. Louis C. Mastrian. "That's how we handle all of our cases. We don't want to make it a general policy, but would rather deal with it individually at the coaches' level and at the building level. Then, if we have to go beyond that, we deal with that, also."

And although his school has some options public schools don't, Kennedy Christian President Pete Iacino concurred.

"I don't believe necessarily you do things to make examples of kids," Iacino said. "You take each case and judge it on its own merits."

At Kennedy, coaches have the right to remove or suspend athletes who violate the drug or alcohol policy off campus during the season, but not out of season.

"Then it becomes a wider school issue," Iacino said.

Other districts, in addition to Hermitage and Kennedy Christian, that give some leeway in varying degrees to the coaches include: Sharpsville, West Middlesex, Farrell and Commodore Perry.

"For off-campus scenarios, that's for law enforcement officials," said Commodore Perry Senior High Principal Les Cattron. "That's their concern. We do not get involved in that case to this degree: Coaches set up their rules and explain these rules. And if a coach says a student is no longer welcome (because of a drug or alcohol violation), that's his or her responsibility. If the coach has reason to believe it occurred, then we would support that."

West Middlesex utilizes a coach's policy for in-season violations, but will hold an informal hearing - as do several districts - and then a formal hearing in front of the school board before a long suspension is handed out.

"If a student does something during the season, it's up to the coach," said West Middlesex Superintendent Albert Jones. "We encourage coaches to hand out rules and regulations, and in some cases our coaches even have contracts with athletes that note the behaviors they expect."

And although "we have nothing in writing for violations that occur out of season and off school property," Jones said, the district does contact the police in the case of a drug violation on school property.

Farrell offers a "re-assignment center" with a mandatory 10-day re-assignment for any student in violation of the drug and alcohol policy. Each student is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, however, students are not permitted any involvement in extracurricular activities if a suspension is in effect. Then as a last resort, excluding expulsion, students can be assigned to the Community Intervention Center, which affords a more restricted environment and one-on-one individual attention. Again, depending on the circumstances, a student in re-assignment or in the CIC could participate in extracurricular activities.

"We valiantly try to use suspensions and expulsions as a last resort because our main goal is to keep students in school under our direct supervision," said Farrell Superintendent Richard D. Rubano. "We attempt to utilize a proactive approach with the situation, which includes the student, parents, law enforcement, Family Center specialists and other appropriate agencies. However, if a student becomes uncooperative or a second offense occurs, we will schedule a school board hearing for a potential expulsion."

"The bottom line with all these policies, including ours, is we like to think we have some preventative things in them," Cattron added. "And when it does occur, you get help for those students. For the young man or woman, if they do have a concern with alcohol or drugs, you try to get it fixed; you get them help. You can call it intervention or assistance, but that's got to be a vital part of any alcohol or drug policy."

Schools with district-wide policies certainly have similar goals when it comes to providing help for the student-athletes, but their policies concerning sanctions prove to be far more unbending.

Battles is a case in point.

An athlete at another school district in the county committed a similar violation under similar circumstances as Battles this past fall, yet has remained eligible throughout the season. That school left the punishment up to the individual coach. Greenville did not.

And therein lies another problem for some school districts to wrestle with. What happens when coaches from different sports treat identical violations with different sanctions?

"Absolutely there could be a problem," said Cattron. "That's a given in any individual case you're looking at because they all have different ingredients. And you do have different coaches with different philosophies and you're always going to have that question (when coaches make the final decision)."

In fact, it was alleged inconsistencies in how Greenville dealt with other athletes, although district-wide in this case, that led the Battles family to eventually file a suit in the Court of Common Pleas of Mercer County against the district in hopes of having Mike reinstated to the team. That petition, however, was dismissed in January by Judge Michael J. Wherry.

Wherry said it appeared "to the Court that, this being an exclusion from athletic activities rather than a suspension from the institution, the Court lacks the authority to direct the school district to permit the juvenile's participation in extracurricular activities."

That reversal of his original order, which had instructed Greenville to reinstate Battles, brought a sigh of relief from several county administrators. One was Jamestown Superintendent David Shaffer.

"I was very disturbed by his original ruling and we, within this district, were very disturbed by that," Shaffer said. "The school law is very clear that it gives local school districts latitude to determine rules and regulations for student-athletes. And when we take these policies to heart and have to enforce them on a day-to-day basis, I hope the courts would understand where the boundaries are. And I think ultimately Judge Wherry saw that."

What Reynolds Superintendent Max Stokes sees is that it's better to have a district presence in these drug and alcohol issues.

"And it's not because we distrust what coaches will do, but because you have differing viewpoints," Stokes said. "It's not that coaches are doing anything wrong, but it's always good to have an administrative presence with the coach, athletic director and principal also involved."

Lakeview Superintendent Dr. Paulette Savolskis concurred.

"For Lakeview, this is what works best because it does eliminate the coaches from being criticized when a coach in one sport did one thing and a coach in another sport did another thing," Savolskis said. "It also eliminates confusion for the students. It's worked for us to have a consistent policy for all our sports and extracurricular activities."

Greenville, Reynolds and Lakeview are joined on the list of county schools that feature district- or school-wide policies by: George Junior Republic, Grove City, Mercer, Jamestown and Sharon, which is currently in the process of revamping its policy.

Most of these policies refer to in-season violations. One that doesn't is Reynolds'.

"Any student who violates the drug and alcohol policy of the district and/or is arrested and charged with violating laws for controlled substances (at any time), punishment may include a temporary or permanent suspension from all the extracurricular and co-curricular activities for a time that is determined by school officials," said Stokes. "In addition to excluding students for violations of this policy, we also require them to be referred to our student assistance team."

At Grove City, if a student-athlete is arrested off campus, he or she would be immediately suspended from any PIAA events for a minimum of 10 days, according to Grove City Superintendent Dr. Robert Post.

"There is no discretion on the coach's part," Post said. "The student may continue to practice, but can't compete."

Mercer's policy covers violations for drugs, alcohol and tobacco during the athletic season. Its sanctions are among the most severe of all the county schools. For a first offense, students are suspended from extracurricular activities for eight weeks. A second offense calls for a 16-week suspension, and a third is call for permanent removal from the activity. The district does, however, provide for a possible reduction in the length of the suspension based on certain criteria being met.

"These suspensions, except for permanent removal, can be cut in half by a student-parent participation in an intervention program approved by the school," said Mercer Superintendent Dr. Larry Connelly.

Being a school for court-adjudicated youngsters, George Junior is far different in its handling of drug and alcohol violations. George Junior is also the only school in the county that currently utilizes mandatory drug screenings.

"Everything is relevant here to the level systems that the kids are on and when they're released," explained GJR Vice-president Rick Losasso. "Everything a boy does here, whether he runs away or returns late from a home visit to a positive urine screen, it's all related."

Losasso said George Junior utilizes a five-level system, a Behavioral Education Model, which students use to work their way through in order to eventually be released back to their homes. In order for a student to be discharged, he must be on at least the fourth level and have had three consecutive successful home visits.

The school puts all of its students in the BEM, so athletes wouldn't necessarily get suspended for a drug or alcohol violation. It would, however, prolong their stay at George Junior.

A positive urine screen would result in an automatic suspension of the student's next home visit and he would be put on a "disciplinary subsystem," which fits into the five-step process.

"When a student is put on a disciplinary sub-system, he has to work that off before he continues on the regular (five-step) program," Losasso said. "He's also lost another home visit, forcing him then to work for three consecutive home visits from scratch."

Since most students are scheduled only six home visits per year, that would be a serious setback in relation to the student's timetable of being released from GJR.

"This is our method of disciplining kids," Losasso said. "It's straightforward and consistent. It is possible a kid could lose extracurricular privileges, but again you have to look at our situation. Most people are going to feel that we're not playing by the rules like other schools, but we're in a unique situation. The things that are important for the boys here are home visits and release, and that's where we can place our emphasis on discipline."

It is that emphasis on discipline that all schools continually must wrestle with and one that takes plenty of wisdom to mete out.

"I think (policies) have to be a little blend of each," said Mastrian, regarding the suspension vs. leniency dilemma. "Kids have to realize there are responsibilities that have to be adhered to. And I think the educational portion of it has to be included, also. We need to make kids look at the long-term effects of what they do as young adults. They need to know that someday it's going to catch up to them."

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Updated March 9, 1999
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