In what is billed as a "nearly zero tolerance" approach to drugs and alcohol on campuses, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Education approved a policy Tuesday night that requires students caught with illegal substances to be transferred to another school in the district.
Under the new policy, students would be automatically expelled for selling or distributing illegal substances on campus or if they are caught a second time under the influence.
The policy, among the strictest in the county, was billed by school board members as a "clear message" to students and their parents that drug and alcohol use is unacceptable on school grounds. Currently, students are suspended by principals the first time they violate the rules concerning possession or use of a controlled substance on campus.
The new policy has been advocated by the principals of the six high schools in the district because they say it provides a strong deterrent for the students.
"Our position is not one of ignoring a call for help," said Robert Francy, the district's head of student services. "Our concern is that we will not tolerate the use and or sale of drugs on our campus.
"I have looked at different options, looked for workable alternatives--we're forever trying to develop a policy that makes sense. I think we can ill afford to send mixed messages to students and parents."
One parent objected to the new policy, arguing that it is "far too harsh and severe for the first offense."
"The policy will catch innocent kids in the snare," said Newport-Harbor PTA President Sharon Pence. "It will ruin some innocent kids. Their lives will be changed forever."
Experts in the field say that the so-called zero-tolerance approach in punishing campus drug use is one that needs to be implemented along with vigorous educational programs and by teaching students about the ramifications of alcohol and drug dependence.
"Transferring a kid to another school is simply transferring the problem elsewhere," said George Marcelle, the executive director of the Orange County National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
Marcelle said "careful intervention" for students with drug and alcohol problems is necessary to combat the extensive social pressure on teen-agers to drink and experiment with drugs.
According to an informal survey of school districts in Orange County, both Saddleback Unified and Santa Ana Unified school districts have harsher penalties for students found to be under the influence of alcohol or other illegal substances while at school functions. Both call for expulsion of the student on the first offense, though officials say that their board or administrators have some flexibility in the expulsion hearings.
"Generally, an awful lot is done on a yearly basis to remind students (about the policy)," said Gary Jeffries, special services coordinator for the Saddleback Unified School District. He added that though there has been a considerable decline in the number of expulsions since the policy was adopted by the district, between 25 and 50 students each year go through the proceedings.
Santa Ana Unified reports about 50 expulsions a year for alcohol and drug related problems. Anthony Dalessi, assistant superintendent for special services in Santa Ana, said that his district has had the policy for a number of years and that it seems to work.
"We have much less of a problem than people would probably imagine," Dalessi said, adding that Santa Ana Unified has a student body of 45,000, the largest in the county.
Some school districts, including Tustin Unified, Orange Unified, Capistrano Unified, Brea-Olinda Unified, Huntington Beach and Anaheim, leave final decisions on the form of punishment up to the administrators at individual schools, usually suspension for the first offense. Other districts call for automatic three-day or five-day suspensions.
The Newport-Mesa policy has been developed over the last year by a committee of administrators and parents. According to Thomas Jacobson, principal at Corona del Mar High School, the need for additional deterrence was the most important factor considered by the committee.
"It became apparent to us . . . that the threat of a five-day suspension was not significant enough," Jacobson said. "And we began to talk about what we could do on the first offense to really get the kids attention."
District officials said they are confident that schools provide sufficient support and educational services for children to turn to if they feel they need help with substance abuse. Under the policy, a student who turns to school counselors or administrators for help will not be punished.
At the school board's next meeting, Aug. 21, the board is expected to adopt a final version of the policy after which copies will be mailed to parents and flyers given to students and posted in the schools.