Fermented tea sparks bout on banned substances in schools

A local mom took a beef with school officials to the Internet last week after her son was sent to the vice principal's office for having in his lunch a glass bottle of fermented Kombucha tea, which contains small amounts of alcohol.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials said administrators followed standard protocol in a situation possibly involving banned substances after the Ensign Intermediate School seventh-grader was overheard telling other students he had alcohol.

But the 11-year-old boy's mother was "irate" over the school's response.

She alleged on her blog, "Fresh and Free in OC," that school officials "interrogated" the boy, and "treated him as a criminal" by having a school resources officer present in meetings — despite the fact that Kombucha is an increasingly popular alternative to sugary sodas or juices.

"He loves Kombucha. He loves educating the other students on the detriments of processed food and sugar," wrote the mother, who the Daily Pilot interviewed but is not naming because of her son's age. "So how does he deserve this?"

The boy was initially called into Vice Principal Mary Jo Vecchiarelli's office Oct. 9, where administrators called his mother but weren't able to reach her, district spokeswoman Laura Boss said.

Because the mother, who only uses her first name on her blog, couldn't be reached, the incident carried over until the next day, a half school day, during which the boy waited and studied in the administrative office, Boss said. He also signed a document acknowledging that he was potentially facing suspension, as is standard.

The district's official policy says a "student may be subject to suspension or expulsion" if it is determined that he or she has possessed, used, sold or was under the influence of any controlled substance as defined by law.

According to the Kombucha brand Búcha's website, which is the drink the mom said she packed in her son's lunch, the beverage contained "less than 0.5% alcohol," which comes from the fermenting process and is not enough to get someone drunk.

While home brews sometimes contain more alcohol, as long as a commercially sold Kombucha's alcohol content is below 0.5%, it is not categorized as an alcoholic beverage by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

"This was the first time that this had occurred," Boss said, so "when they called [the boy] into the office, they informed him that this was a suspendable action, because [the Kombucha] did violate the policy with regard to having alcohol on campus."

Later, on Oct. 10, the boy's mother met with administrators, and the possibility of suspension was dropped.

The mom's concerns were picked up by another blog, The Healthy Home Economist, later in the week. The district then issued a press release in response, saying that administrators weren't out of line.

Boss said that the incident has, however, prompted officials to review some of their disciplinary processes.

"I don't think Kombucha is the issue," Boss said. "What we need to look at is there are several different substances out there that we could come into contact [with] again, and we need to apprise ourselves about what these substances are."

She added that such policies are slated to be discussed at an upcoming Harbor Council Parent Teacher Assn. meeting.

The mother said her family has taken on a "real food" lifestyle in recent months, cutting out most processed food and incorporating natural dietary remedies. She said she has been trying out Kombucha as a more natural way of curbing the effects of her son's attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder by "reestablishing his gut."

Dayna Kowata, a naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist at UC Irvine's Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine, said, "It's not a far reach" to say that Kombucha, which is fermenting certain live bacteria and yeast cultures in tea, acts as a kind of "supercharged probiotic."

"More of our neurotransmitters are produced in the gut," she said. "If it's somehow benefiting gut health, it would indirectly benefit brain health and digestive health."

But, "there really isn't any scientific literature on the quote-unquote 'beneficial effects' of the tea at all," and certainly no studies related specifically to children and Kombucha, she said.

Nevertheless, the mother said she's committed to a more holistic, natural approach to her family's health. And in the vast network of like-minded parents online, she said, "that's where I found my support."

jill.cowan@latimes.com

Twitter: @jillcowan

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