June 15, 2008

Driving Home a Lesson of Responsibility

When adults enter into contracts for big ticket items, like business partnerships and homes, we hire lawyers to help us understand contract language before we sign.

High school graduations are big ticket items for teens, and high school students across Maine sign participation contracts with advice from parents and teachers, an overwhelming number of whom are not lawyers.

Participation contracts are a good idea, as are most contracts, because they outline students obligations and hold them accountable. But, any given student's understanding of the contract language may not be what it should be, and teens being teens, the terms may be forgotten just as quickly as the ink is dry.

We believe that most students sign participation agreements in good faith, that they fully intend to abide by the obligations, which usually mean keeping up grades and staying away from drugs and alcohol. But, because making bad choices is part of growing up, many fail to live up to their obligations and the penalties are painfully real.

The decision by administrators in the Oxford Hills School District to ban nine seniors from last week's graduation is not a new trend. In the past decade, teens found to have violated school rules against alcohol and drug use have been banned from graduations in Buckfield, Turner, Poland and many other towns. These are tough decisions for administrators to make, and even tougher decisions for teens and parents to accept.

Missing graduation is much more than a missed photo opportunity, and the penalty may actually punish parents more than it does teens, but if a student signs a participation contract and violates the terms, then graduation they will miss.

This big ticket punishment is too permanent to impose unless teens - remember, these are beings who can't remember to pick up their laundry much less understand contracts - truly understand what they're signing.

We're not suggesting that schools add classes in contract law to their curricula, but it would not be unreasonable to expect administrators to hold regular assemblies to refresh students on their contractual obligations. And, since parents can have tremendous control over student behavior, it wouldn't be unreasonable to make sure that parents fully understand the contracts and penalties as students move through their high school years, with an emphasis on the irreversible consequence of missing graduation.

In Oxford Hills, the seniors who missed their graduation were found with alcohol on a school trip.

In Mountain Valley, 19 teens were charged with consumption of alcohol and were permitted to graduate because the alleged drinking occurred outside of school. But, as administrators determined they had "reliable information" the students were drinking, the district's participation agreements kicked in, forcing students off the tennis team and dismissing them from the National Honor Society, among other things.

If any of the charges against the Roxbury 19 are dismissed in court, those dismissals do not retroactively reinstate National Honor Society status or erase dismissals from team sports. There is an appeal process for the administration to reconsider decisions, and appeal requests are already coming in, but "a student doesn't need to be found guilty (in court) in order for us to enforce our policies," according to MVHS Principal Matt Gilbert.

Courts and school contracts are separate entities that operate under different rules of evidence and action. Schools, and not courts, have absolute discretion to enforce student policies, contracts and agreements. Students and parents must be well- schooled in the consequences of violating these terms, and school administrators have an obligation to offer frequent short courses to drive the lesson home.

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