If Westborough students are found "knowingly in the presence of" alcohol or drugs at "unsupervised, underage gatherings," should school officials prohibit them from participating in school-related events?
Wednesday night, the school committee and a number of parents debated clarifications to the school district's chemical health policy proposed by the board's policy subcommittee.
Parent Michael Donovan said the term "knowingly in the presence of" penalized --by "guilt by association" -- students who attend such functions but do not use drugs or alcohol.
Several parents agreed.
In contrast, Westborough High School Assistant Principal Brian Callaghan called the policy "an improvement on our former policy." He added that "something we cannot do is weaken that policy."
"We feel strongly that any student that is among or around those using drugs or alcohol is not in a safe environment," said Callaghan, who becomes WHS principal on July 1.
The school committee did not vote Wednesday night. Chairman Ilyse Levine-Kanji said the board welcomed more public input, and will discuss the proposed changes again May 8, and possibly May 21.
School board member Bruce Tretter said the school committee's policy subcommittee seeks "to clarify the policy" through the proposed changes.
"We know from three years of woirking with this policy that there was a phrase in there that people were most concerned with, and that was 'knowingly in the presence of.' We took a close look at that," Tretter said.
The policy's latest draft now begins with "The purpose of this policy is to protect the health, safety and welfare of all students and to encourage responsible decision-making." The phrase "and to encourage responsible decision-making" is proposed to be added.
The draft also reads, "'Knowingly in the presence of' is defined as being or remaining at a site, or in a building, residence, or vehicle in which a controlled substance or alcohol is being used, consumed, or possessed, including alcohol consumed or possessed by a person under the age of twenty one (21). 'Knowingly in the presence' shall not apply to activities that a student attends with his or her parent(s) or legal guardian(s) where controlled substances are legally consumed as long as the student does not personally consume those substances.
"Please note that 'knowingly in the presence' primarily addresses unsupervised, underage gatherings where alcohol or other illegal substances are consumed.
"Common sense prevails in that 'knowingly in the presence' is not intended to punish a student's presence in legally licensed establishments that serve alcohol, family gatherings, religious convocations or other responsible, adult supervised events and activities so long as the student does not consume alcohol, tobacco, or any other controlled substance to which the student does not have a prescription."
The subcommittee also proposes adding that "Violations are not limited to on-campus behaviors and activities, and will include after school events, weekends and school vacations."
Tretter said the policy "gives out students more latitude and a socially responsible out."
But, Donovan said that under the policy, "I'm going to get in the same amount of trouble whether I have a beer or I don't have a beer."
Donovan presented the board with some data. Levine-Kanji said Donovan had expressed an interest in this issue, news which did not sit well with member Jody Hensley.
"The rest of the school committee was not aware that Mike had contacted the chairman. So, thank you for letting us know," Hensley said.
Most parents attending opposed the changes.
Former school committee member George Thompson said he voted for the policy in 2004, but now "I haven't seen anything that supports that vote."
The "knowingly in the presence" language is "too punitive" to a student who doesn't drink but stays at a party to ensure his friend's safety, Thompson said.
But, Hensley said she had "spoken to at least one dozen parents who support this policy."
"We have a policy that's working. It's setting an expectation that sets a very positive tone," Hensley said.
School board member Nicole Sullivan said that "98 percent" of the e-mails she has received on this proposal were against it.
She said that "the people who should be held accountable" are the parties' hosts.
"If one family was found in violation of this law, a lot of it would end," Sullivan said.
Police Chief Alan Gordon said "we have charged families with hosting parties."
"We've borne the brunt of a lot of wrath from people" as a result, Gordon said.
"The last thing we want to do is charge any of our students."