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Zero Tolerance

Few argue against the idea of no leniency when it comes to drugs, alcohol and weapons in schools. But how to ensure that the punishment fits the crime?

December 04, 1996|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maureen Flynn started her sophomore year as class president and varsity soccer player at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa. That lasted less than a week. A summer beer caught up with her.

Stripped of office and transferred to another campus, 16-year-old Maureen paid the price for breaking her school's policy of zero tolerance for alcohol, drugs or weapons--a policy designed to send a potent message to students.

Should one mistake, asked Maureen with full-throttle teen drama, "ruin my life?" At her new school, she added tearfully, "I'm nobody. I've never been nobody. I'm a total nobody now."

Seven of Maureen's soccer teammates also were nabbed for drinking or having a drink in their possession in a hotel room during a Santa Barbara tournament in July. The teammates--each suspended for five days and transferred to different schools for 90 days--have come to be known as the "Estancia Eight."

What happened to half the Estancia girls soccer team is not about the extremes of zero tolerance; it is about the middle ground where administrators, students and parents nationwide are wrangling with slippery questions: What is fair punishment? Are the rules enforced for all students? Should students pay dearly for mixed signals from adults about alcohol? What are a student's rights when schools investigate suspected wrongdoing?

The controversy has provoked feverish debate at civic meetings and school board meetings. The dispute even bled into local politics as candidates for City Council and school board seats staked out their positions.

At Estancia, the parents of soccer player Stacy Rivas believe the fallout has been so harmful that they moved the family to Arkansas last month to give their daughter a fresh start.

Camella Jaeger, Estancia's No. 1 seeded singles player for the girls tennis team, varsity soccer player and student government vice president, was also among the eight. She never opened the drink hidden in her backpack. She and her parents and--yes--their lawyer fought the transfer.

The Jaegers argue that the summer tournament was not a school-linked activity. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District disagrees--but by a narrow margin: The trustees voted 4 to 3 that the soccer trip was school-connected.

Never mind that each September, students and parents sign an acknowledgment of the zero tolerance policy that spells out the consequences for students caught at a school-related event selling, using or being in the presence of booze or drugs.

At Estancia, one of four high schools in the Newport-Mesa district, two policy challenges underline how fraught with difficulty the effort can be to protect students from themselves and other classmates, yet still be fair.

The first challenge came in September, when Orange County Municipal Judge Michael McCartin went to court seeking his daughter's return to Estancia. Jennifer McCartin admitted drinking two beers before a school dance in June. Her father argued that punishment was overly harsh and questioned the assumption that his daughter was intoxicated. A Superior Court judge denied the request for a preliminary injunction.

The second challenge arose out of the soccer episode. Rolf Jaeger and his attorney met in a closed-door session with the school board and witnesses testified as to whether the summer tournament was school-linked. Turned down, he initially discussed court action but has since decided that that might hurt daughter Camella's chances of returning to Estancia and cost the district money better spent on students.

A few of the soccer players are privately sniping about one another or have drifted apart. They are now spread out among at least three schools and two districts, and it is uncertain whether they will be reunited at Estancia.

In his column in the Daily Pilot newspaper, Newport Beach Mayor John W. Hedges reacted thusly to the challenge by the Jaeger family: "What would have been ignored by the press and public as a routine school transfer mushroomed into a nuclear blast with a girl at ground zero. No wonder Camella wants to hide in her room."

*

Six years ago, it was not uncommon to find students vomiting on the bathroom floor during school dances, parents and Newport-Mesa administrators say. Passed out on lawns, stoned during the daytime, students seemed to be brazenly abusing substances, said Bonnie Maspero, principal at Newport Harbor High. Each weekend after a football game, trash cans overflowed with empty beer cans and drained gallon jugs of liquor, evidence that the crowd was buzzing--and not on school spirit alone.

Then came the prom bus. A group of students chartered one to go to the dance. After it lumbered over to a curb and the kids unloaded, a teacher climbed in. She found a well-stocked mobile bar.

"It was pretty bad," said Mac Bernd, superintendent of the district, which educates students from Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. "The board felt it had to do something to prevent a major tragedy."

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