A Torrance Superior Court judge has found an El Segundo High School senior guilty of possession of alcohol on school grounds, and has upheld the decision of school officials to bar him from student dances for the rest of the year.
But the parents of 17-year-old Brian Williams say the punishment is overly severe and have vowed that they will fight the school district for "as long as it takes."
Brian had been charged by school officials with being under the influence of alcohol on school grounds on Oct. 26, when he waved what appeared to be a beer bottle from a passing car at a bus carrying other students and the school principal.
He later admitted to having "a drink of beer" at a party on the Loyola Marymount University campus earlier that evening, but denied being drunk or possessing liquor while at the high school grounds, where he, another passenger and the driver of the car had gone to pick up the driver's girlfriend.
School officials have said that drinking on campus is "an important and continuing problem," and that they routinely deal out the maximum punishment for even minor infractions of the school's ban on drinking or possession of alcohol on campus. Brian was also suspended from school for one week and dropped from the school soccer team for the first four games of the season.
In his ruling, Judge Pro Tem Abraham Gorenfeld said there was insufficient evidence to prove that Brian was under the influence, and instead found him guilty of possession, which carries the same punishment, according to the district's educational code.
El Segundo Unified School District Supt. Richard Bertain explained that the district uses the phrase "under the influence" in a general sense to include possession, and will amend the school's charge to agree with Gorenfeld's ruling.
Bertain called the decision "an appropriate one that vindicates the school's position on the problem of student drinking."
Bertain said the school's strict policy on drinking is widely known among students, and that the district will not deviate from what it considers "firm, clear, convincing sanctions against drinking on campus."
Brian's father, Wesley Williams, who challenged the school's initial accusation, said he is shocked that the court upheld the district's decision.
"The punishment is far too severe for what Brian did," he said, "which was wave a beer bottle.
"No one has ever proved that he was drunk or that he possessed alcohol while at the school. They've put a serious blemish on a record that was untarnished during Brian's entire school career."
Attorney Thelma J. Muzik said the family will ask that the court grant a rehearing of the case. If that fails, she said, they will file a special writ with the state Court of Appeal.
The writ, she said, is used in extraordinary cases where the normally lengthy appeals process would render an ultimate decision in their favor moot.
"If we filed an appeal," she said, "he would graduate long before the appeal would be heard. It would be a moral victory at best, but it wouldn't get him into the dances." If granted, she said, the writ would allow Brian's case to be heard much more quickly.
Williams said his son has become "very depressed" over the incident, "stays in his room a lot," and has "lost respect for school authorities."
Because his son was denied witnesses at the school board's hearing in November and at the court hearing in December, Williams said, his son has been treated "like a second-class citizen who doesn't have the same rights as a common criminal."
"Had Brian been turned over to the police, we would have been far better off. They know how to handle these things," Williams said.
School dances, Williams said, "are an important tradition in our family. I proposed to my wife at our high school senior prom. Brian has looked forward to senior year activities like the prom and grad night for a long time."