The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Board of Education last week made the right move when it decided to change its substance abuse policy allowing students who are caught drinking or doing drugs the opportunity to regain certain privileges, including the right to participate in graduation ceremonies, by completing a five-day suspension, 40 hours of community service and substance abuse counseling. Some even have to attend a 12-step program.

The old policy was not equitable. Those students who were busted at the beginning of the school year would not miss graduation, one of the most important moments in a student’s life, because the probationary period only lasted 10 weeks. Those caught in the second semester, however, could.

By allowing students to regain privileges like participating in athletics or music programs, it gives them another incentive to complete their probation. It also teaches them that making a mistake has consequences, but that trust and honor can be earned through commitment to do right.

What we don’t like is the way the change came about. A trio of 18-year-old seniors at Santa Monica High School were caught with beer while at a pub in England, where they were visiting as part of a choir trip. The three teens, while legally allowed to drink overseas, signed a document before leaving stating they would abide by the school’s code of conduct while on the trip. They knew they were doing wrong, but went ahead and broke the rules anyway. And because of that, they were punished.

But since these kids’ families had the means to hire attorneys and had connections on the school board, they were able to force a change in policy. The change needed to happen, but doing so because of three kids and their very vocal parents sends the wrong message, as does making the change in policy temporary, expiring at the end of June. That action says to other kids in the district that if you do wrong, it doesn’t really matter as long as you have money and know the right people. What the board should have done is keep the policy in place through the end of the school year and then made the change, effective in the fall. That would give school board members and staff a summer to study the issue further and come up with a firm policy that is equitable.

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