SMMUSD HDQTRS — For this year only, seniors and eighth graders will get the chance to attend graduation and other end-of-the-year events despite violating the district’s controlled substance policy.

The determination came down at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting. The issue was thrust into the spotlight after three seniors at Santa Monica High School were caught with beer while on a choir trip overseas.

Board members voted unanimously to alter the policy, which required a 10-week probation period that prohibited students from participating in award ceremonies, activities, grad night and, ultimately, graduation.

The change preserves other aspects of punishment, including a five-day suspension, requirement for 40 hours of community service and 24 hours of substance abuse counseling. Depending on the offense, students could also be required to attend a 12-step counseling program.

But under the revised program, students who complete the community service and counseling requirements would “earn back” the right to attend graduation and other events instead of being barred entirely.

The new provisions will expire on June 30, and will revert back to the harsher penalties until the board has a chance to create a new, permanent policy.

Seven students in the district will be affected by the change.

Removing the requirement that students miss their own graduation pleased board members, who noted that students that violated the policy in the beginning of the year wouldn’t receive so harsh a sentence as those that messed up at the end.

“Taking away a culmination ceremony like graduation for a first-time offense is damaging,” said board member Oscar de la Torre. “You’re punishing not just the student, but the whole family.”

In some cases, it might be the only graduation ceremony the student would ever see, he pointed out.

Board member Ralph Mechur fought to include all students in the change, but eventually had to settle for eighth graders who would otherwise miss their “promotion” ceremony to high school.

“If we’re going to make these kinds of changes, I don’t see why we should make them for one group but not another,” Mechur said.

More controversial than the outcome of the temporary policy change were the circumstances which brought the policy to light.

The Santa Monica High School Choir traveled to England in April for its 2011 Spring Choir Tour. Each student signed a document to abide by the school’s code of conduct while on the trip, which explicitly states that students cannot use drugs or alcohol.

While on the trip, three 18-year-old senior girls, Tessa Walther, Chloe Director and Rebecca Redman, were caught by a chaperone in a pub in Cambridge, England, where the legal drinking age is 18.

There was beer on the table, and although no one saw them drinking it, even possession of alcohol violates the district’s policy.

When the “Cambridge Three” returned to the United States, they were suspended for five days and began the process of working through the community service and substance abuse counseling, but the families cried foul over the 10-week probation period which cut them out of choir performances and graduation.

The discussion, which was open to public comment at the May 19 board meeting, centered on the perceived injustice of a “zero tolerance policy” and the benefits of a system where administrators had more leeway to apply punishments while taking under consideration all the facts.

“It’s not only vindictive and mean-spirited, but counterproductive,” said Jan Durbin. “Enlightened policy cannot be created by fear.”

Some district staff, speaking as individuals, asked that the board not give staff discretion over punishments if only to keep things fair and equal.

“This should not be made discretionary or appealable,” said Lynn Sturgis, a district employee. “This is for the temporary gain of a few students who knew they were breaking the rules.”

One of the affected students, Redman, protested insinuations that the girls were trying to get away with their behavior.

“Just because we found the issue doesn’t mean it’s just ours,” Redman said.

At Thursday’s meeting, her mother, Nectar Redman, said that the changes were necessary to achieve the desired effect — reform.

“There needs to be a system to evaluate the severity of the infraction,” she insisted from the podium.

The parents would not say anything further on the issue without first consulting with their attorney, who is involved with the case.

Board members approached the subject delicately, focusing on what they saw as the rehabilitative nature of the changes, and promised to come back in the next school year with a fully revised policy.

The punishment combined three elements — restitution for the wrong committed, education and counseling and punishment.

“This allows components one and two to reduce the amount of punishment,” said Board President Jose Escarce.

Over the summer, a group of staff including Marolyn Freedman, the director of student services, site administrators and the new superintendent, Sandra Lyon, will meet to revise the policy and bring it back to the board by the next school year.

In the meantime, the old, more punitive policy will come back into effect after June 30.

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