Schools Move to Control Off-Campus Behavior

But how far can they go in policing students' conduct?

Most schools pay lip service to no drinking, no smoking, and no illegal drugs.

But the Parkaway School District here is going a step further. All high school students who play football, cheerlead, or participate in any other extracurricular activity must sign an abstinence pledge.

Any student violating the pledge - on campus or off - will be barred from team competition. Superintendent Jere Hochman calls the new policy a "prevention and education program."

As the public calls for tighter discipline, the Parkaway district's tougher conduct code exemplifies a controversial and growing trend to expand the boundaries of school authority.

Some states are passing legislation requiring or encouraging districts to have explicit codes of conduct. And many school districts are establishing policies requiring suspension or expulsion when a student is arrested, even for activities unrelated to school.

But the policies are raising questions about how far school officials can go in policing student conduct. Can a student be sanctioned for swearing at a teacher at the mall? Is a fight between students at a video-game parlor grounds for expulsion?

In Connecticut last month, a state judge struck a blow to local educators' efforts to police off-campus conduct. A 1995 law allowing schools to expel students for off-campus behavior that is "seriously disruptive to the educational process" was found to be unconstitutionally vague.

Balking in White Plains, N.Y.

Meanwhile, some students are voicing their own protest. Last fall, Elana Nightingale, a high schooler in White Plains, N.Y., refused to sign her school's code of conduct under which students who use or possess tobacco, alcohol, or drugs are automatically barred from sports or other extracurricular activities. Elana took her complaint to the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and won some modifications to the school's code.

Many schools have longstanding policies barring athletes from using alcohol, drugs, or tobacco. But now those codes of conduct are being extended to students who participate in any kind of extracurricular activity, whether it be the chess team, debate club, or student council. Elana, for example, was a photo editor on the White Plains High School newspaper.

School administrators find themselves stuck in the middle. "They are trying to give parents what they're asking for: a safe, orderly environment," says Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.

But other parents want to draw a line between in-school and out-of-school behavior.

"We object to the school trying to control the students' behavior where they don't have jurisdiction," says Linda Berns, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who helped the Nightingales pursue their complaint. "Outside of school, it's up to parents to control behavior."

Fight over a fistfight

Carol Parrillo, a mother in Liverpool, N.Y., agrees. After her high-school-age son was suspended for five days for an off-campus fistfight, she helped collect more than 300 signatures on a petition admonishing the school board not to "police our children when school is not in session."

The number of serious suspensions or expulsions in the Liverpool school district doubled in the past four years, reflecting a pattern at many high schools nationwide.

Part of the increase can be traced to federal zero-tolerance policies on weapons that went into effect in 1994. Students caught with a lethal weapon must be automatically expelled for one year. These strict rules encourage school officials to be more aggressive about discipline in general, says Ronald Stephens, president of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

Just a year later, the Supreme Court found drug testing of student athletes to be legal. Since the tests detect drugs most likely used out of school, that case also opened the door for schools to take an interest in out-of-school activities.

Many educators are adopting stricter policies because of serious concerns about alcohol and drug abuse.

The legal precedent now exists for denying students access to sports or clubs if their off-campus behavior violates school policies. "Extracurricular programs are a privilege; they're not a right," Mr. Stephens says.

But expelling or suspending a student for offenses committed outside of school is "a bit worrisome," Ms. Christie says. "If educators keep pushing and expanding their authority, I'd expect some serious legal challenges."

Ms. Berns of the New York Civil Liberties Union understands that many parents are pleading with schools to help discipline their children. "But it's the parents obligation - and right," she says, "to control their children's behavior and not turn it over to an outside entity."

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