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Inquirer Editorial: School rules do have limits

Teen drinking is a complicated issue. Just how complicated can be seen by taking a look at the Haddonfield schools.

(STEVE ANSUL)Read more

Teen drinking is a complicated issue. Just how complicated can be seen by taking a look at the Haddonfield schools.

The school board six years ago established a so-called "24-7 policy," which was supposed to control even students' off-campus behavior. Students charged with alcohol offenses were barred from extracurricular activities, including athletic teams, choir, and drama productions.

It seemed to be a good and reasonable measure to many Haddonfield residents, especially a year after the policy was implemented, when a reportedly intoxicated 17-year-old football player leaped to his death from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Indeed, a central component of public education should be the protection of children. In that regard, children's education should include showing them that bad personal decisions have consequences. Supporters of the 24-7 policy stressed that point. The policy, though, appears doomed.

Earlier this month, Administrative Law Judge Elia Pelios ruled that the Haddonfield School District's policy fails to meet state guidelines that place limits on disciplinary measures responding to off-campus behavior. The judge's decision follows a similar ruling that was made by a state appellate court in a case involving a North Jersey high school.

As a result, the Haddonfield school board has suspended its policy pending an ultimate decision on its use by state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, who has the matter under review.

Cerf and Haddonfield school officials should keep in mind that while rules are designed to define limits, there have to be limits to rules, too. Taking that view, one might conclude that the 24-7 policy, though well-intended, went too far.

Of particular concern is the way Haddonfield police would inform school officials whenever students were caught at parties where drinking was occurring, even though specific students' guilt might not have been established. If arrested for other crimes, the students' identities would likely be protected by juvenile confidentiality rules.

What kind of message does it send to teenagers when educators decide their civil rights are not to be taken seriously?

Rather than try to hold on to the 24-7 policy, the Haddonfield school board needs to find a replacement that doesn't ignore the fact that even high school students have rights. In reality, the policy was a poor substitute for what the students really need - strong parental involvement that gives them the incentive to avoid trouble.

Many teens, with so many extra activities, spend the bulk of each day at school. But their most important lessons are still taught at home. A British study shows that children who have seen their parents intoxicated are twice as likely to get drunk on a regular basis.

Parents must start with their own behavior to direct their children's. They must develop relationships in which their children feel free to talk about peer pressure to drink or do anything else.