Underage Drinking & the Law

What parents need to know now about the new Social Host Laws

[POLL] Guilt by association is the rule at many high schools


NOTE: This article is reprinted from my new column on parenting in politics on examiner.com:

Guilt-by-association may not be a valid way of judging someone’s guilt or innocence, but it’s fast becoming the new policy at high schools across the country. Officially referred to as “constructive possession” in athletic or student handbooks, it means students who attend a party where drugs, alcohol or — in some cases — steroids are being used by others, can earn the same penalties whether or not they participate.

In a court of law, “constructive possession” exists where a person has knowledge of an object plus the ability to control the object, even if the person has no physical contact with it (United States v. Derose, 74 F.3d 1177 [11th Cir. 1996]). One example is a person arrested for a jewel heist who doesn’t have the gems on his person at the time of the arrest but the police have evidence he stashed it in another location. Since high schools aren’t courts of law, they have simplified the definition to apply to students who don’t leave an event where other students are caught drinking or doing drugs.

In May, Mansfield High School in Massachusetts announced they were adding the constructive possession rule to their handbook for the 2012-2013 school year. According to Jeff Sullivan’sarticle in the MansfieldPatch, Mansfield High School assistant principal Dawn Stockwell says the goal of the new “constructive possession” rule is “to stop our students from going to illegalunderage drinking parties, period.”

However, Mansfield High is not the only school district to add this to the handbook. Individual school districts in many states have had a “constructive possession” rule for years, including Colorado, Washington, Maryland, New Jersey and several more in Massachusetts. Braintree, Massachusetts’ school district has one in their athletic handbook. Salem, Massachusetts, America’s original witch-hunt capital, one-ups Mansfield in their 2011-2012 Student-Parent Handbook, which states the school’s administration will not only penalize a student, they’ll report any knowledge of a student’s “constructive possession” of drugs or alcohol to the Salem Police.

Where the rule exists, lawsuits for wrongful application follow. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged the Baltimore County school district in 2005 on behalf of a group of students from Dulaney High School. Their suit was dismissed. Dulaney High’s current Athletic Policy Statement still requires the athletes to pledge that they “will not be in attendance or participate in any environment where underage or illegal use of prohibited substances is involved.”

The concept of broadening the rules to penalize students who are sober raises three concerns.

First, this new rule is in direct opposition to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Chemical Health rules which state, “This MIAA statewide minimum standard is not intended to render ‘guilty by association’, e.g. many [sic] studentathletes might be present at a party where only a few violate this standard.” There are similar clauses in other state athletic association’s handbooks.

Second, if the sober students are required to depart a party as soon as they observe alcohol or drug use, who’s driving the inebriated students home? Are these new rules removing the designated driver from the scene?

And third, if the sober students leave, who’s left in charge to call for emergency help when one of the imbibing students falls, or exceeds the threshold for alcohol poisoning, or becomes violent?

In our effort to control and protect minors from temptation, are we robbing the “good” students – those who don’t break the rules – of the essential opportunity to learn responsibility by acting responsibly?

To find out if your local school has a “constructive possession” or guilt-by-association clause in their student or athletic handbook, call your school district’s office before the new school year begins.

To learn more:

New MHS Policy Creates Harsher Penalties for Alcohol and Drug Use by Athletes“,MansfieldPatch. May 23, 2012

Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Chemical Health Rule 62.1

Mansfield High School Athletics Department website

Athletes removed from Boonsboro teams after alcohol party“, The Herald-Mail, December 9, 2009

Links to some other school district handbooks or materials: Calhan Colorado, Centennial Colorado, Littleton Colorado, Carroll County Maryland, Kinnelon New Jersey, Chateaugay New York, Kent Washington, Okanogan Washington, Pateros Washington, University Place Washington

Do you think this is a good idea? Answer our poll, below.

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