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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Drug Policy and Judgment

March 09, 1998

"Zero-tolerance" policies have become popular in business, the military and schools. There should be no argument with bans on drugs, weapons or harassment. The American Assn. of School Administrators argues that although policies to keep campuses free of weapons and drugs may appear strict, they provide students a good environment for learning.

But common sense should be required as well. Was it right to suspend a 13-year-old Texas girl for carrying a bottle of Advil, ruled a drug by the school district? Was the Pennsylvania school that suspended an eighth-grader for chewing an Alka-Seltzer tablet correct? And in Newport Beach, was the school district right to suspend Ryan Huntsman because of a police officer's suspicion that he had been smoking marijuana?

Huntsman, a Corona del Mar High School senior, was stopped by a Newport Beach police officer last month for playing his car's radio too loudly. The youth's lawyer said the officer found an empty plastic bag and a pipe in the car. Although the officer suspected marijuana use, he issued a citation only for noise pollution.

The officer's report, including his suspicions about marijuana use, was forwarded to school officials, who suspended the teenager and transferred him to another school. The interim superintendent of the Newport-Mesa School District, Robert Francy, said district policy was to suspend and transfer anyone having drugs or alcohol on campus or going to or from school.

But Huntsman said he was not going to or from school. More important, he said he had not smoked marijuana and the pipe wasn't his. His mother said he also passed a drug test but that school officials refused to consider the result.

Last Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Robert E. Thomas said Huntsman could return to Corona del Mar High. The judge scheduled a hearing March 17 on the validity of the suspension and transfer and on whether the district had jurisdiction, since Huntsman was not going to or from school.

School officials across the country who have adopted zero-tolerance policies say they are strong deterrents and also help fend off lawsuits from students charging unequal treatment.

Before the judge's ruling, Francy said students headed for college, as Huntsman is, "should be extraordinarily careful." School officials need to have the same caution, especially on red-flag issues such as student drug use. Tarring a student unfairly could damage his future, including chances of getting into college.

Anti-drug education is necessary. Students need to be reminded that actions have consequences. But common sense is necessary in measuring young people's actions and in making decisions that may affect them profoundly. It seems to have been absent in this case.

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