Zero Tolerance

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maureen Flynn started her sophomore year as class president and varsity soccer player at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa. That lasted less than a week. A summer beer caught up with her.

Stripped of office and transferred to another campus, 16-year-old Maureen paid the price for breaking her school's policy of zero tolerance for alcohol, drugs or weapons--a policy designed to send a potent message to students.

Should one mistake, asked Maureen with full-throttle teen drama, "ruin my life?" At her new school, she added tearfully, "I'm nobody. I've never been nobody. I'm a total nobody now."

Seven of Maureen's soccer teammates also were nabbed for drinking or having a drink in their possession in a hotel room during a Santa Barbara tournament in July. The teammates--each suspended for five days and transferred to different schools for 90 days--have come to be known as the "Estancia Eight."

What happened to half the Estancia girls soccer team is not about the extremes of zero tolerance; it is about the middle ground where administrators, students and parents nationwide are wrangling with slippery questions: What is fair punishment? Are the rules enforced for all students? Should students pay dearly for mixed signals from adults about alcohol? What are a student's rights when schools investigate suspected wrongdoing?

The controversy has provoked feverish debate at civic meetings and school board meetings. The dispute even bled into local politics as candidates for City Council and school board seats staked out their positions.

At Estancia, the parents of soccer player Stacy Rivas believe the fallout has been so harmful that they moved the family to Arkansas last month to give their daughter a fresh start.

Camella Jaeger, Estancia's No. 1 seeded singles player for the girls tennis team, varsity soccer player and student government vice president, was also among the eight. She never opened the drink hidden in her backpack. She and her parents and--yes--their lawyer fought the transfer.

The Jaegers argue that the summer tournament was not a school-linked activity. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District disagrees--but by a narrow margin: The trustees voted 4 to 3 that the soccer trip was school-connected.

Never mind that each September, students and parents sign an acknowledgment of the zero tolerance policy that spells out the consequences for students caught at a school-related event selling, using or being in the presence of booze or drugs.

At Estancia, one of four high schools in the Newport-Mesa district, two policy challenges underline how fraught with difficulty the effort can be to protect students from themselves and other classmates, yet still be fair.

The first challenge came in September, when Orange County Municipal Judge Michael McCartin went to court seeking his daughter's return to Estancia. Jennifer McCartin admitted drinking two beers before a school dance in June. Her father argued that punishment was overly harsh and questioned the assumption that his daughter was intoxicated. A Superior Court judge denied the request for a preliminary injunction.

The second challenge arose out of the soccer episode. Rolf Jaeger and his attorney met in a closed-door session with the school board and witnesses testified as to whether the summer tournament was school-linked. Turned down, he initially discussed court action but has since decided that that might hurt daughter Camella's chances of returning to Estancia and cost the district money better spent on students.

A few of the soccer players are privately sniping about one another or have drifted apart. They are now spread out among at least three schools and two districts, and it is uncertain whether they will be reunited at Estancia.

In his column in the Daily Pilot newspaper, Newport Beach Mayor John W. Hedges reacted thusly to the challenge by the Jaeger family: "What would have been ignored by the press and public as a routine school transfer mushroomed into a nuclear blast with a girl at ground zero. No wonder Camella wants to hide in her room."

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Six years ago, it was not uncommon to find students vomiting on the bathroom floor during school dances, parents and Newport-Mesa administrators say. Passed out on lawns, stoned during the daytime, students seemed to be brazenly abusing substances, said Bonnie Maspero, principal at Newport Harbor High. Each weekend after a football game, trash cans overflowed with empty beer cans and drained gallon jugs of liquor, evidence that the crowd was buzzing--and not on school spirit alone.

Then came the prom bus. A group of students chartered one to go to the dance. After it lumbered over to a curb and the kids unloaded, a teacher climbed in. She found a well-stocked mobile bar.

"It was pretty bad," said Mac Bernd, superintendent of the district, which educates students from Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. "The board felt it had to do something to prevent a major tragedy."

Considerable debate among parents and educators ensued before the policy was adopted in 1990. Nobody much argued against the need for an unbending rule. But, even then, disagreement raged over punishment.

Less harsh than complete expulsion, which some other districts practice, Newport-Mesa compromised with temporary transfer to another school--in the district or outside, if they choose--on first offense, expulsion on second. Weapons violations earn immediate expulsion. Transferring students, the reasoning goes, may break up the peer tentacles squeezing a youth into bad behavior.

In the three school years ending last June, 36 girls and 94 boys have been transferred under zero tolerance in Newport-Mesa's 27 schools. Two-thirds of those cases involved drug use, overwhelmingly marijuana; the other third were alcohol-related transfers. Fewer than a dozen were found in possession of a weapon.

While no one says the policy has put a stop to student drinking, drug use and other infractions, administrators contend it has made a visible dent. Proponents of zero tolerance policies point out that if schools do not take a tough stand, they may be found culpable later.

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Administering the policies fairly is a challenge for principals who have to sort out what constitutes a school-connected event and when--if ever--to make exceptions to the rules.

The French club at a Baltimore-area high school went to Paris and students drank wine, only to return home and find themselves suspended and banned from extracurricular events for two semesters.

At Estancia, members of the drama club visited Italy last spring break after parents--two school board members included--signed waivers that allowed their children to drink wine at meals.

Even fighting or carrying a weapon are not always clear-cut cases, said Hector Madrigal, director of pupil services and discipline for Los Angeles Unified School District. The majority of cases in that district, the nation's second largest, involve weapons violations, he said, and the consequences vary by school.

What leads youths into troubled situations can be complex and subjective, he said. Is a weapon that is never brandished a true threat or purely a means of self-defense for the walks to and from school? Is a student caught in a fight attacking or putting up a defense?

State laws mandate expulsion of students for possessing, selling or furnishing a firearm; brandishing a knife at another person; sale of a controlled substance; and, effective in January, sexual assault and battery. In the LAUSD, possessing replica firearms, BB guns and starter pistols are also grounds for expulsion. Dealing with matters like drinking or being under the influence of drugs is left to the discretion of principals. The district has a panel that reviews recommendations for disciplinary actions.

Ted Greenfield of the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals said administrators would rather run the risk of looking absurd than run the risk of being dragged into court for a lot of money. "As soon as an accident happens, that principal is exposed to liability issues. That is the reality of zero tolerance."

Another reality is getting caught in a storm of publicity when safety policies seem to skirt reason: the Ohio honor student who was suspended for possession of Midol, the North Carolina first-grader who stole a kiss and was busted for sexual harassment.

Only in the wake of First Lady Nancy Reagan's Just Say No anti-drug campaign and her husband's so-called war on drugs did zero tolerance policies seem to emerge.

"For over 10 years, I have been doing alcohol and drug policy work and policy analysis, and I view zero tolerance as a tool in the toolbox," said Dan Hicks, consultant to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. The Washington-based nonprofit organization favors zero tolerance.

For those who say a zero tolerance policy is unnecessary, or overly punitive, Hicks pointed out that lack of a policy proved discriminatory mostly to the students who were not big shots on campus.

"The overall history is that when people who are important to a team or an institution or whatever were discovered to have a problem, generally it was not punitive, it was not zero tolerance. It was, 'Oh, we'll let them go.' Over time, it builds this environment of 'This is no big deal' instead of 'This is a dangerous drug involved in rape, murder and most traumatic injuries.' "

Kids, he said, are the biggest victims--victims of a barrage of propaganda, victims of generations of socially permitted excesses from smoking to drinking to experimenting with drugs.

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Jim Ferryman has been on both sides of the zero tolerance battle lines.

While he's been a school board member, the Newport-Mesa district has transferred more than 100 students for violating policy. It especially bothers him that the board has transferred grade schoolers to other campuses because they brought to school a pocket knife one might envision Huck Finn or a Cub Scout toting. Even those consequences showed leniency: The rules call for automatic expulsion.

Three of his children have attended the district's schools. His daughter, who was on the drama club trip to Italy, played soccer with some of the Estancia Eight.

"I'm not saying it's right, but I think most kids [do] try something. Let's be realistic. They're gonna try stupid stuff. That's what being a kid means."

Last spring, his 15-year-old son broke zero tolerance rules. Then a member of the Costa Mesa High School football team, he was confronted at the same dance as Jennifer McCartin. Ferryman said he had left home to attend a retirement party and his son and a few buddies lingered and drank before going to the dance.

"My kid got nailed, and he deserved to get nailed. . . . But I don't see transferring kids to other schools as a meaningful repercussion. I don't see it as constructive for the kid, and that should be the bottom line," Ferryman said. "I think it's punitive and onerous, and I think zero tolerance could be a lot more effective."

Ditto from June McCartin. Schoolteacher, former wife of a judge and mother of three, she and Michael McCartin were high school sweethearts at Estancia. In the classroom and at home, she said, she sees the need for consistent rules applied fairly. But she has also seen the "unfairness" in court of a three-strikes-you're-out approach. Newport-Mesa's zero tolerance rule, she said, gives you one strike.

She believes her 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer, was entrapped. At a June school dance, a teacher pulled the girl aside. Had she been drinking? Tell the truth, the teacher urged her. District officials and family members disagree on whether the teacher promised that candor would negate any consequences.

Jennifer admitted to having had two beers at a barbecue before the dance. She came to the attention of a teacher at the dance, officials said, when she noticeably struggled to complete a request form for photos. Her parents said she was acting silly for friends. They said that a teacher called and told Jennifer's father that she was being sent home for drinking. But when asked if they should fetch her, they said, the teacher assured them that Jennifer was not drunk and could go home with a friend.

Jennifer, her parents said, made a bad choice to drink. And they gave her consequences. Each of the five days she was suspended, Jennifer spent eight hours in her father's municipal courtroom, watching drunk-driving victims, families of suspects and the like suffer and sob over alcohol's ruins.

So that Jennifer could complete her senior year on the Estancia volleyball and basketball teams, her parents sought court intervention, asking a judge to override the district. Statewide athletics policies dictate that students transferred for disciplinary reasons are not allowed to compete at their new school.

The same week they went to court, the McCartins attended the funeral of a friend's son. He was the passenger in a car whose teenage driver, June McCartin said, had been drinking.

"Don't think that doesn't make you think about something and give you a different perspective," she said. "We live in a very fast-paced society where [kids] don't think past what is in their egocentric world . . . which is no different than my world at that age, and probably not my parents'. That is the maturation process. . . . So why crucify kids who do something that is age appropriate?"

Look, say others, at what resulted last year when seven students from Anaheim's Katella High School crashed in the desert after a night spent drinking. On their return from a camp-out, a legally drunk teen rolled his dad's Suburban. Four boys dead, three injured. How many strikes did those boys get?

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Over the weekend of July 20th, 11 members of the Estancia High School girls soccer team were staying at a Santa Barbara hotel. They were competing in a weekend of soccer matches as part of a fund-raising tournament hosted by a San Diego County school booster club.

The team lost every game.

Tucked into one of their hotel rooms one evening, some of the girls sipped beers with boys from another soccer team who allegedly brought the booze.

The girls' assistant soccer coaches broke up the party but did not report it. After an anonymous tip was made later in the summer, there was sobering news: The school board concluded that the event was school-related.

Questioning of the girls began on the first day of school. Later, the Jaegers and other parents objected that they had not been notified of the alleged drinking or of the investigation and were not given the chance to accompany their children during questioning.

During the first week of school, five of the 11 players were notified that they would be suspended, then switched to another school of their choice. Initially spared, Camella Jaeger and two others who had not been drinking but had helped hide or dispose of the booze ended up being transferred too. Three other players at the tournament were determined not to be involved.

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Outside a closed-door school board meeting in October, most of the soccer team and their supporters huddled as the Jaegers and their family attorney protested her transfer.

Inside, among the witnesses was the coach whose assistants discovered the party: She testified that she did not think the event was a school-linked trip.

Dori Marsh, 18, also testified and was among the eight players disciplined.

"I've never admitted to drinking. Other people said I did," she said, before rushing off to her job. "It's not even about the policy. This wasn't a school event [because] we didn't wear our school uniforms; we didn't play for Estancia."

Jaime Bennett, 17, was not on the trip but is a friend of many who were. She said boys on athletic teams, especially football players, have not been snagged for drinking or drugs "because their coaches, like, watch out for them. They tell them to go home or get them a ride home if they see them drunk at a dance. That's the big place to drink."

Jaime still has a Los Angeles Times Magazine story about the Katella High School students killed and injured in the desert crash. She and the other girls nod that they understand the worries about drunk driving.

"No one is really saying zero tolerance is wrong. But it's the consequences. And it totally can ruin your life," she said.

Erin Bergman, captain of the soccer team, was on the Santa Barbara trip but not involved in the drinking. "How can a person, like, stop drinking by going to a different school?" she asked. "Then you can't play sports, and yet sports is what keeps us out of trouble."

As the hearing wore on, Maureen Flynn's arch humor gave way to tears.

"I'd rather have a felony on my record than this on my transcripts," she said. "My education is what will get me somewhere in life, and this could really hurt my chances. . . . Just getting caught, I think, has convinced us not to drink alcohol until we're 21."

Supt. Bernd and other school board members would argue that that is the whole point. He contends that the girls should have considered the consequences when they decided to drink or be present when zero tolerance rules were broken.

Countering complaints that students were punished as a result of their candor, Bernd argued that telling the truth is supposed to be something children are taught is the right thing to do.

"Telling the truth is a belief, not a strategy," he said.

And, Bernd said, parents don't help their children by treating "the word 'no' as a starting point for negotiations. . . . Part of being an adult is taking responsibility for your actions."

* Freelancer Hope Hamashige also contributed to this story.

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