Parents and school officials worry that a recent house party, which dozens of Walt Whitman High School students attended and where alcohol was served, demonstrates that lessons from previous alcohol-related tragedies are not being learned.
Following a house party in Bethesda on Dec. 10 when parents were away, roughly three dozen students were suspended from extracurricular activities after Principal Alan Goodwin investigated.
Picking up on gossip at the school and Facebook chatter, Goodwin interviewed several students and was able to pin down those who were cited by Montgomery County police for alcohol possession when police broke up the party. Police did not provide information to Goodwin about the incident.
Unlike when students are caught with alcohol or drugs on school property or at school-sanctioned events, incidents at off-campus locations fall into a gray area as far as policies are concerned. Ultimately, the school system leaves it up to principals to decide whether it is appropriate to punish their students.
Whitman’s high-profile history involving underage drinking weighs on Goodwin’s mind when such news crosses his desk, he said.
When alcohol and Walt Whitman students mix, Board of Education member Patricia B. O’Neill thinks of the girl who used to babysit her daughter. Walt Whitman junior Elizabeth Clark died when she drove her car into a tree in Bethesda in 1994; the other teenager who died in the wreck, Katherine Zirkle, at one point looked after O’Neill’s daughter when she was out of the house. Another Whitman student, Britton Chichester, was killed in a single-car crash in 1989.
Both crashes involved alcohol, according to those who remember them.
O’Neill believes the impact of the 1994 deaths has evaporated.
“The issue of underage drinking in the community is a huge problem,” she said.
‘An effort to keep them safe’
Walt Whitman’s policy is that students found in possession of alcohol off-campus, after school hours and not during school events are temporarily prevented from participating in extracurricular activities.
Members of sports teams, for example, were suspended for two games, while sponsors of other activities worked with Goodwin to establish an appropriate, similar punishment for people in their clubs or groups.
He conceded the situation was problematic, since some simply got away with underage drinking.
“I talked to students. Some students volunteered and came forward because they felt bad about what they did,” Goodwin said in a Dec. 28 interview. “I certainly didn’t reach every single person that was cited at the party because that’s difficult to do.”
He said that the punishment for such incidents not on school property or time had to be creative, since the students were still representing the Whitman community.
“It doesn’t always make them happy but at least it’s an effort to make them safe,” Goodwin said.
Outside of incidents where students are arrested for felonies, individual schools are given leeway in how they handle non-school situations, said school system spokesman Dana Tofig.
“Principals do have discretion in how they operate their school and how they handle incidents of student behavior outside the school building and outside the school day,” he said.
He said he was unsure if there were any boundaries on what punishments they could or could not use. The school system does not track such disciplinary measures.
Walt Whitman junior Carolyn Freeman, who wrote a story about the issue in the Dec. 13 edition of the school’s newspaper, “Black and White,” said she had heard conflicting statements about what Goodwin did. One student told her that Goodwin didn’t ask for names of other students who had alcohol at the party, while another said Goodwin did.
“There are definitely people who have gotten away with it,” she said.
Leroy Evans, principal at Rockville’s Zadok A. Magruder High School near Rockville, approves of what Goodwin did, but doesn’t hand out such punishments himself. He doesn’t believe it is within his jurisdiction to do so.
“Principals should have the autonomy. Nobody knows my community better than me,” he said. “Somebody on the other side of the county might not have a clue.”
Like Goodwin, Evans said police do not notify him when his students are cited for underage drinking.
The Magruder community dealt with its own alcohol-related tragedy last year, when senior Haeley McGuire was killed in a car wreck along with two Magruder alumni, Spencer Datt and John Hoover, on May 15. The driver, Kevin Coffay, later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and admitted to drinking before the crash.
This school year, Magruder partnered with a nonprofit organization that fights underage drinking, Drawing the Line, on an initiative, Brave and Bold, to involve parents more closely in efforts to prevent students from drinking, with support from Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy and county law enforcement.
As part of the effort, parents can sign a “Safe Homes” pledge to be present when their children are having a party in their home, or to have another adult present for those parties. Even a desirable parent-to-student ratio at parties is specified: one for every seven to 10 students.
With the 21st century generation, as Evans puts it, “Binge drinking is more of a problem.”
Nationwide in 2008, in roughly 17 percent of the 5,729 fatal crashes that involved drivers age 16 to 20, the drivers had blood alcohol content above the legal limit, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Drawing the Line’s executive director, JoAnn Binko-Sanders, said getting parents to stop being fatalists on underage drinking is a crucial part of Brave and Bold’s strategy.
“That’s the mentality that we sort of rage against on a daily basis,” she said. “There is always a parent that says, ‘We did it. It’s a right of passage. Kids are going to be kids.’”