High School Students in New Jersey Being Held Accountable for Summer Drinking

Students returning to public schools in Morris County, New Jersey, are being held accountable for their behavior over the summer. County school districts are increasingly putting students—especially athletes—on notice that their actions outside of school, even during the summer, can result in consequences.

The Daily Record reports that last September, some Roxbury High School students were disciplined when school officials saw photos on Facebook of what looked like underage drinking during a party over the summer. In October, West Morris Mendham High School students who were charged with underage drinking after police busted a Saturday night party were also held accountable by school officials. Recently, Morristown High School students charged with underage drinking when police stopped an after-prom party bus were required to meet with substance abuse counselors in school.

In some cases, the students were athletes who had signed contracts pledging to abstain from drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. These students faced additional penalties related to their participation on a team, as Morris County high school usually hold student athletes to a stricter code of conduct.

Five of Morris County’s high schools require that student athletes sign a code of conduct that holds them accountable for their actions outside of school year-round, and nearly two-thirds of the county’s 39 school districts also warn all students that school officials have the right to impose consequences for off-campus conduct.

“I think as a society we have become more aware of our collective responsibility to keep our kids safe,” said Roxbury Superintendent Michael Rossi, who said he stands by the district’s decision in the Facebook case to discipline the students.

“I think this is a critically important contribution we can make,” Rossi added. “We can suspend a student from a club and that’s better than not doing anything, which could come back and cost them a college acceptance, a job or their life,” Rossi said.

State law says schools have the authority to take action for conduct off school grounds when “it is reasonably necessary” for the student’s, other students’ or staff’s “physical or emotional safety, security, and well-being.” The precedent was set in a 1970 case when a school suspended a student who stabbed another student off school grounds.

Kinnelon Superintendent James Opiekun said he knows this all sounds Orwellian and like “Big Brother,” but there is a real risk of losing kids who abuse drugs and alcohol. If a student is smoking pot on the weekends, it could impact the student’s performance on a physics test Monday morning.

“If a student got beaten up at night outside of school and we found out, I would be negligent for not reporting it,” Opiekun said. “But if they abuse themselves physically I’m supposed to ignore it?”

Some parents object to school officials disciplining students for smoking or drinking on weekends or during the summer. “They want to raise a perfect society,” said Monique Zing, a mother of two in Denville. “You can’t. I think it’s a violation of privacy. If a student is arrested in the summer, that’s a family issue.”

Carrie Kirtchner, a Lake Hopatcong mother of two, said she think it’s the parents’ job to discipline their children. “Schools have enough responsibilities during the school day,” she said. “If something happens on a weekend or night, it’s not affecting the operation of the school.”

Two Roxbury graduates who recently graduated said the only message the Facebook incident sent was to stop posting pictures online. “All it did was have kids stop taking pictures,” said Jesse Wright, 18, who played on the school’s soccer team. “Kids were just more secretive about it.”

Kyle Chowhan, 18, a pole-vaulter for the school, agreed. “It is high school, it is going to happen; now students are just being more careful to keep it quiet,” Chowhan said.

Chowhan said an educational program called “Every 15 Minutes” had more impact on students. The two-day event at school simulated a student injured in a drunk-driving accident being airlifted from school, followed by a mock funeral.

“My friends freaked out; it changed their minds about drinking,” Chowhan said. “It hit harder than the penalization. It made kids think they could die if they drink.”