The Board of Education heard more from Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner on a review of the Darien High School commitment policy at its Tuesday night meeting.

At the previous meeting, Brenner reviewed the policy in its current form, as well as its history at DHS. In doing so, Brenner pointed out that the problems with the policy now, specifically inconsistent identification of violators and a weak ability to gather reports, have been the same problems since the policy’s inception.

At present, any student who takes part in any extracurricular activity, not just sports as the policy originally stated in the 90s, must sign a “commitment.”

Any student who is caught using, or caught in the presence of, drugs and/or alcohol is subject to a 14-day suspension from the activity for the first offense, if that offense occurred in season. A second offense carries a 28-day penalty.

However, a student who was caught out of season was not subject to any penalty once the season started, the only effect was that the first strike had already been accumulated. Students are aware of this, and there is even a wider proliferation of parties and incidents in the days leading up to the start of a season.

Beyond this, students who violate the policy are identified so inconsistently it amounts to randomness. A party with 100 students might yield only five or six names. A take away from the committee was that, despite 26 students receiving 14-day suspensions resulting from commitment violations, this represents only a fraction of those students who attend parties who use drugs and alcohol.

“We came to the conclusion that the level of alcohol use among our students is simply too high,” Brenner said.

At the May 23 meeting, Brenner continued to highlight the issues with identification and enforcement as the primary hurdles to creating a new, more effective policy. “Ultimately, commitment is not working. That’s the takeaway,” Brenner said.

A number of potential solutions to the ineffective policy were offered, including stronger punishment for violators or adding a community service or volunteering element to the punishment.

There was also talk of attendance of a “diversion” program for violators, which could reduce the length of suspension. This would be similar to drivers who return to a driver’s ed course after getting a ticket. Ultimately each returned to that same central problem with inconsistent enforcement and identification. With so few students being caught, increased punishment or different punishment likely would have minimal impact.

Changing the way a student is punished does nothing to change the identification process, nor does it address the behavior itself.

“This is a really difficult issue. We couldn’t get past how ineffective we have been,” Brenner said. The challenge, according to Brenner, is replacing the oversight of commitment.

“What do we do if we take that away,” Brenner asked, speaking only about out of school and weekend activities.

Beyond this, Brenner and the committee who worked on commitment were determined to add an education aspect to the policy. That education would be aimed not only at students, but at parents, coaches, and teachers as well.

One idea was to have a mandatory educational portion of preseason meetings for all teams and clubs, and making student and parent attendance at those meetings mandatory for a student to participate in the activity.

One point of Brenner’s presentation suggested making all DHS students and at least one parent attend a hour and a half long educational program created by the schools. The program would include legal information, anecdotal and media presentations, and direct alcohol and drug educational information. The program would be offered multiple times before each season, and a student not attending would result in the postponement of their ability to participate in the season.

“We felt strongly that we needed to educate, and we needed to have both the student and the parent in on it,” said Brenner. Brenner added that coaches would be required to attend the education as well.

Board member Duke Dineen pointed out that this policy still misses a group of students. There are DHS students who do not participate in sports or extracurriculars, and Dineen wanted to know how those students would get this education that they need as well.

Brenner pointed out that 85% of the student body participates in extracurriculars, but added that, “this is just one piece of a more comprehensive package” that the administration will be looking at.

Board Member Betsy Hagerty-Ross also expressed a desire to have more professional development for teachers to better understand signs of stress and substance use in students, beyond the 90-minute program. Hagerty-Ross also urged that the police and other community organizations be involved, saying, “We’re here to do this together. We’re here to protect our children.”

Brenner said that members of some organizations, including the police, were on the committee that helped reach this point. Still, much more work is left to be done. “This problem is bigger than just what’s going on in season,” Brenner said. “On June 17th, there’s no commitment. We have nothing,” added Brenner.

Brenner pointed out that there really is no timetable for a rollout of a new policy. “If we could roll something out by September that would be great, but there is no reason why we have to,” Brenner said. The committee that came up with ideas and data to this point is invited to the next Board of Education meeting. Brenner called this “the start of a discussion with the Board of Education, and by extension the community.”

Community feedback from organizations and citizens has been critical to reaching this point, as the administration and the board continues to grapple with the best way to move forward.

darestia@darientimes.com