A new commitment? Darien superintendent, board discuss revamping school's substance abuse policy
Every student at Darien High School is familiar with what is called the “commitment.” The school policy deals with the punishment of students who take part in extracurriculars, including athletics, that are caught using drugs or alcohol. This also includes being “in the presence of” drugs and alcohol. At the May 9 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner gave the first half of a presentation that examines the commitment policy, looking at its history and effectiveness, or lack thereof. Ultimately, the goal is to create a new policy, as the current one simply does not seem to be working.
Brenner began by offering a history of the policy itself. The original commitment was created by Daren High School in the early 1980s, and it is not in fact a Board of Education policy at all. In the 1980s, the purpose was stated as “to deter the use of alcohol and illegal substances for students on athletic teams.”
Student athletes signed a document indicating they would not use drugs or alcohol to make their “commitment.” A student who was caught, on their first offense, would receive a 14-day suspension, meaning the student was forced to sit out of games played in that 14-day stretch. The second offense was 28 days.
In 1997, the phrase “in the presence of” was added to the policy. A student athlete who was simply at a party where alcohol was being illegal served, even if they were not consuming any, was subject to a commitment violation.
“The assumption is guilt, and they were punished accordingly,” said Brenner.
In 2008, then-Principal Dan Haron further revised commitment policy, extending it to all extracurricular activities, not just athletics. Further, Haron added that the policy would be enforced all year. So a student caught out of season for a commitment violation would receive their first strike, and being caught in season, even if for the first time, meant a second strike and a 28-day suspension.
The suspension expanded to include all practices as well as games. Haron sent a letter to parents saying there were three goals to this: to minimize drinking and drug abuse among students and hold those accountable for behavior that reflects badly on Darien High, to be more consistent between athletics and other activities, and to be more fair and practical in regards to enforcing administrative rules.
Brenner then referred to old editorials written in the Neirad, the DHS student newspaper, specifically one from 1990. The editorial said that it was ultimately up to students how important the commitment was to their team, and that the decision to break commitment comes down to the students dedication to their sport and team.
“That comment could have been made yesterday, about any number of students,” said Brenner, pointing how just how weak a deterrent the commitment policy seems to be.
From there, Brenner spoke about his own introduction to the commitment policy in 2015.
“I was not here three days before this conversation was delivered to me,” Brenner said.
He then spoke about the disparity between how students are treated in season and out of season.
If a student has a commitment violation just one day before their season starts, they will serve no suspension time, and simply have to not get a second strike in season. Just one day later, and the student would lose 14 days on the team. According to Brenner, students are well aware of this, and there is even a wider proliferation of parties in the days before a season starts because the students know the consequences are less severe.
Brenner pointed to another problem with the policy: the seemingly random identification of students.
The administration would get the names of violators via the Student Resource Officer, the Darien police officer at the high school, or through the use of the tip line. The police, Brenner said, will no longer be turning over names of commitment violators, as they have been counselled not to do so.
If a student is arrested, there is still an obligation to notify the school.
“You could have a party with 100 kids at it, and it may yield five or six names. So you get a sense of the randomness,” Brenner said, also pointing out that some of those names may be, as others ran, students who stayed behind to help a friend who was seriously struggling.
Brenner then pointed out some staggering data obtained via survey from the Thriving Youth Task Force.— 25.6% of Darien High School students said they have consumed alcohol more than six times in the last thirty days. FIfty-one percent of Darien teens don’t think their parents have a problem with their drinking, and 58% of juniors and 67% of seniors said they have consumed alcohol in the last thirty days. These numbers point to a culture of not only drinking, but the acceptance of drinking among Darien students.
From there, Brenner began discussing what he called “a study of commitment.”
It was clearly paramount that everyone involved agreed with one general idea. Brenner called this a defined problem: darien youth are involved with alcohol and illegal substances at a rate that is unhealthy for their well being.
“Agreement on this is fundamental to exploring commitment and making changes,” Brenner said, adding,
“Lack of agreement on this belief makes future work meaningless.” Brenner did say that this idea was universally accepted and agreed with by members of the committee assembled to study commitment.
Based on facts presented, a comprehensive study was done during the 2016-17 year.
“This is something we need to address. This is a community problem, not a superintendent problem,” said Brenner, highlighting just how important it is to take this discussion and involve parents, coaches, administrators, teachers, police, and other community members to come up with the best solution.
“I have no doubt this is going to generate some interesting conversations,” said Brenner, before returning to that central idea and saying, “Where we net out is subject to conversation, but if we can’t agree on that as fundamental, than where we net out is meaningless.”
“You have to ask the question: has it been working?” said Brenner. “Those comments made 27 years ago, they could still be made today. Are we involved in any sort of policy that has had an impact?”
Brenner then went on to talk about the data collection done as part of this study. A committee was formed of parents, teachers, coaches, the Athletic Director, administrators, and others. The objectives were simply to identify the strengths and weaknesses of current commitment policy, and then to come up with proposed changes or solutions. Brenner said the anecdotal evidence from committee members was, “plentiful”.
Brenner said the committee had a “unanimous belief that any meaningful consequences needed to involve parents and students to create change,” adding that parents must be included if any sort of impact on the culture is to be made.
A clear focal point dealt with the inconsistencies in identification.
“That was troubling to most of the members. Not that people were caught incorrectly, but that there was such a randomness to it that it was problematic,” Brenner said.
Brenner provided data to that effect. In 2014-15, according to Brenner, 25 students were caught in school, six of which resulted in commitment violations meaning they were caught in season. There were zero out-of-school violations. In 2015-16, there were 17 in school alcohol/drug incidents, 10 of which resulted in commitment violations. There were 27 out of school violations, 16 of which resulted in commitment violations.
“On any given weekend we know that there are large parties with underage drinking taking place. There’s no doubt. Anyone who has a high schooler will tell you the same. When you think about these numbers, and you think about parties that can have 75 kids at them, you realize that this number is miniscule,” Brenner said.
Brenner then said, “I would suggest it’s random.”
It was this sort of randomness and inconsistency that drove much of the discussion.
“We know that punishment that is inconsistently applied has no effect. Punishment will change behavior when it is understandable, immediate, and consistent,” Brenner said, which led to nodding heads and even some vocal agreement from audience members at the meeting.
Brenner would add later, “Schools historically do not punish well. We don’t typically punish in a way that has great impact. What do schools do well? They educate.” Brenner and Principal Ellen Dunne also met with groups of Darien High School students, who were very frank and candid about alcohol use.
Brenner said their conversation was strikingly similar to the content of the 1990 Neirad article, saying the students “repeatedly said they are committed to their teammates, and to their success, but not to the commitment.”
More than that, Brenner said there were repeated comments from students that schools have not done an adequate job around educating students on drugs and alcohol.
Public comment about the presentation had many questions.
Lucy Fiore, a member of the RTM Education Committee, was anxious for changes and results. “The biggest problem is that it doesn’t work,” said Fiore of the commitment, pointing to past policies in other towns like Greenwich that punished more severely and consistently.
“I feel like we’ve been waiting a long time for this new proposed commitment,” said Fiore, adding, “We need rules in place, now, that are consistent.”
A number of board members and audience members were also eager to hear not just the findings, but proposed changes. The need for a solution to address this problem is clearly a very hot issue in the town. Dennis Maroney, the chairman of the Education Committee, had questions about possible legal culpability should a policy be adopted by the board.
In a hypothetical where a student was drinking at a party and the police arrived, so the student ran and drove home to avoid a commitment violation, what was the culpability? Brenner assured Maroney that this would not be an issue.
The second half of the presentation, which is to include takeaways from the data collection and possible solutions reached by the committee, will be given at the next Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, May 23. It is clear that the administration is looking for a solution that not simply offers punishment for kids, but involves parents and the community at large in a way that effectively educates students about the dangers of drinking along with possible consequences. “This has the possibility of being a very volatile topic,” said Brenner. While volatile it may be, this topic is also of dire importance to Darien students are the community at large, given the audience response. It is also reasonable to expect that the rest of the presentation will be met with great interest, as the town continues to grapple with the issue of alcohol and drug abuse among its youth.
The entire presentation is available at the Darien Public Schools website by navigating to Board of Education, then meeting materials, and looking at materials from the May 9th meeting.