Sunday, October 26, 2008

Off-Campus Jurisdiction and Sanity

Schools are messy places. Balancing the mission of Catholic education with the competing needs and wants of students, parents, and staff is certainly a daunting and heroic task. What makes it even more challenging and exciting is worrying about what happens off of school grounds. How do the off campus activities of our student body effect what we do within our halls? Is it our right and our place to discipline students for actions that take place at events that are not school sponsored?

We all have written drug and alcohol policies. Our past surveys indicate that primarily those policies limit the school's jurisdiction regarding alcohol consumption to school events, incidents that take place en route to school events, or incidents of a public nature in which a police report or ticket is issued. What about other incidents? What about the well intended but often neurotic parent who calls to anonymously report a drinking party over the weekend? Does the school have an obligation to act? What about cyber-bullying that takes place off of campus? Are these problems the domain of the school administrator? Does in loco parentis really apply twenty four hours a day? Do Catholic schools have greater or lesser responsibility than our public counterparts?

Most or our institutions contain clauses embedded in our handbooks that give us the right to discipline students for morally offensive behavior that occurs off campus. We operate on contract law and as such live and die by our handbook for defining the limits and reaches of school authority. In the public world the courts have been mixed in terms of limiting school jurisdiction to the school house gates and granting broad reaching power. In Kusnir vs. Leach 1982 the courts ruled in favor of a college taking disciplinary action against a student for morally inappropriate behavior at an off campus and non school sponsored social event. In terms of free speech courts have trended to allow school intervention only when the off campus event has a negative and substantial impact to the school day (Thomas vs. Board of Education Granville 1979). Events that take place off campus that do not disrupt the school's normal operation involving free speech are considered to be off limits for our public school counterparts. Dr. Scott McCleod of CASTLE provides an excellent summary via this podcast (link here).

I had the privilege a few weeks ago of receiving a lovely phone call on a Monday morning from a parent concerned that parents had allegedly hosted a party over the weekend and provided alcohol to the students. Our school has suffered from a similar incident four years ago in which the offending parent spent time in jail besides paying a hefty and substantial fine. I turned the case over to our school's drug and alcohol preventionist who coordinated the investigation and suspended ten students who the employee determined were involved with the event. We try to avoid anonymous complaints and concerns but given the gravity of the claim found it worth investigating. Our investigation concluded that the accusation of parents providing alcohol was unfounded yet drinking did take place in their home without their complicit knowledge. Our policy is based off a local city ordinance that deems minors who are "knowingly present and choose to remain" as guilty. A number of the students appealed their consequences to the disciplinary committee on the grounds that they were not "knowingly present". They argued in attending that they knew parents were to be present, that a small number of uninvited students brought the alcohol and where then asked to leave and that they did not personally violate the school's code. The majority of the appeals were successful. The students have a right to an appeal and I can live with the results of the process but what it brings to my attention is the question of boundaries?

Students who spend the night at a sleep over and engage in name calling or arguments that are unchristian do not find themselves facing school discipline the following Monday nor should they. The parents of the students are expected to deal with it. Why does bullying that takes place outside the school grounds via the net fit a different category? Why is the party the domain of the school? If parents are the primary educators of their children as CCC 2223 points out where is their obligation in policing and dealing with off campus issues? One can see where cyber-bullying could spill into the normal operation of the school and cause substantial issues with the smooth operation of the school. At the same time we have a moral obligation to keep our students safe and to encourage their moral development.

As a principal how do you decide when and when not to become involved with off campus issues? Do you have any memorable incidents to share? What is the proper balance? How aggressive need a school be regarding off campus issues to protect the moral development of students? What are the pros and cons of being overly aggressive?

1 comment:

Joy Allen said...

This is an honest and noteworthy article. Principals cannot and should not be responsible for all actions off school grounds. We could never do our job if we also took on the roles of parents. Way to go Charlie. I agree completely that we cannot go after rumors and parties where we were not involved. I administer discipline for off school grounds drinking only when students are issued a ticket or ordinance violation.

Joy Allen Central Catholic High School