Student Lesson: We All Are Held Accountable for Our Actions

Mary Ann McCarthy is a parent and chairwoman of the San Dieguito for Drug-Free Youth board of directors. She is also a member of the San Dieguito Union High School District board, but these are her personal opinions and not those of the board

The saga of the young men from the San Dieguito area who have been charged with felony and misdemeanor battery in connection with a series of beatings has forced the community and school officials to face the question of who bears responsibility for students' behavior, on and off campus.

In frustration over these senseless beatings and the seemingly unfair assault by the media, many segments of the community have looked to the schools for a solution. Should schools be asked to carry the burden of parental responsibility and the responsibility of the community as a whole? Children spend an average of 23% of their weekdays in school. What about the other 77%?

What responsibility does the school have for the students' behavior when they are not in school?

Who is to make judgments about off-campus behavior? Do we turn to school administrators to be judge and jury? What is the responsibility of the students themselves?

Some young people appear to have adopted the "Rambo" ethic and seem to feel no need to follow basic rules of citizenship. Is the entertainment industry responsible for glorifying violence and instant gratification? Have family, friends, church, school and the community failed to provide strong role models?

There also has been an appalling lack of positive peer pressure as other students have accepted and defended the actions of the accused young men. Why was there a code of silence? Why didn't other students say or do something? Is it possible that peer pressure would have stopped these attacks?

The testimony by students before the school board Nov. 19 left more unanswered questions. Why are the students opposed to the concept that the school district and the community should expect good citizenship from them at all times? Why don't they know we are all, always, responsible for our actions?

These questions lead me to a larger question, one with far-reaching implications. How do parents and the community communicate standards of acceptable behavior? Perhaps we are reaping the harvest of what the community has sown: apathy.

For many years high school students in our community have attended unchaperoned parties where alcohol and drug use are the norm. Public outcry against these parties has come from San Dieguito for Drug-Free Youth and a smattering of news articles. Yet the parties continue to be a weekend ritual, and some of the brutal attacks occurred in connection with parties.

What is the community's responsibility? What is the moral, financial and legal responsibility of parents who allow their teens to attend and to host these parties? California law is clear that adults are responsible when alcohol or drugs are consumed in their home or on their property. What is the responsibility of the parents at whose home the brutal attacks occurred?

The San Dieguito Union High School District has been asked to revise its extracurricular eligibility policy to hold students responsible for their off-campus behavior. Current district policies specify "good citizenship" on campus as one of the requirements for extracurricular eligibility. However, California law places severe limitations on the school district. A student may not be excluded from an extracurricular activity unless the district can prove that off-campus activity has a direct impact on a teacher's ability to teach and a student's ability to learn.

Ironically, there are some citizens calling for the school board to violate this law as well as the students' rights.

Since September, parent and student groups have been discussing a revised extracurricular eligibility policy and have made recommendations to the administration. Their recommendations show support for clearly defined behavioral standards, but there is a disquieting silence from the community. Where are the letters supporting behavioral standards? Why haven't more community members voiced their opinions at school board meetings?

The whole discussion of the policy has been clouded by the barrage of media attention. Have journalists convicted these young men before they have had their day in court? Would journalistic interest be as significant if the incidents had occurred in a less-affluent community? Has the press reported all sides of the story?

By repeatedly identifying the accused young men in stories and headlines as "San Dieguito Athletes," the media have implicated many innocent students. What seems to have been overlooked is the school's long and rich tradition of academic excellence, fine students, outstanding faculty, strong school spirit and superior extracurricular activities. The students on trial are but a small minority.

The sad fact is that a new school policy for extracurricular eligibility would not affect the students currently on trial and may not help them to become better citizens. However, the dialogue about revising the policy may alert our young people to the reality that there is a standard of acceptable behavior, both on and off campus.

There are no easy answers to the difficult questions that such a policy raises, but one thing rings true. We cannot turn our backs on our responsibility to help our young people learn to live as responsible citizens. We all, always, are held accountable for our actions.

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