, Newburyport, MA

October 17, 2013

'Zero tolerance' meets life's gray shades

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Erin Cox may be heartbroken about the punishment handed out to her by North Andover school officials. But she can take comfort from the knowledge that she did the right thing.

And while the high school senior made an informed, intelligent decision to look after the welfare of a friend, the adults running the school system fell back on a blindly-rigid “policy” that insulates them from having to exercise critical judgment.

A few weeks ago, Cox received a telephone call from a friend at a party who was too drunk to drive. Rather than let someone risk driving drunk, Cox drove to the party to pick up her friend.

However, North Andover police had also been summoned to the party, where they arrested several students for underage possession of alcohol. Police cleared Cox of drinking or being in possession of alcohol, according to a report from WBZ-TV.

But school officials were unmoved and punished the honor student and star volleyball player. School officials demoted Cox from her post as captain of the volleyball team and suspended her from playing for five games.

“She’s very fragile and I’m worried about her. Very worried about her. She didn’t do anything wrong,” Erin’s mother, Eleanor Cox, told WBZ-TV on Sunday. “She did what she thought was right, and I’m very proud of her.”

“I felt really bad for Erin because she honestly just wanted to help her friend,” neighbor Cara Reiley told Eagle-Tribune reporter Sara Brown. “In my eyes, Erin’s a hero and I think she should be rewarded for doing the right thing which I do believe she did, rather than being suspended and punished.”

The school has a strict policy against drugs and alcohol, as is the case with all local schools. According to the high school’s student handbook, those participating in athletics shall not “use, consume, possess, buy/sell, or give away any beverage containing alcohol.” Additionally, athletes may lose their leadership positions if they violate the policy.

It’s a fairly standard “zero tolerance” policy, intended to keep students safe, and fearful of doing anything that might violate the policy. But this situation was certainly not one anticipated by the policy.

It is difficult to see how Cox violated this policy. No evidence has been presented that she participated in the party. The triggering events spelled out in the student handbook were not met. But she was at a party where others violated the policy, and thus, apparently, somehow met the criteria for violating it.

The Cox family has hired a lawyer, but a district court judge already has ruled he has no jurisdiction in such matters. There may be no legal recourse for Erin.

The story has gone national and subjected the North Andover school administration to much ridicule. It has also sparked a debate over the logic of applying “zero tolerance” policies blindly.

If public pressure does not compel school officials to overturn their decision, Erin Cox will have to be content with the knowledge that she did the right thing — and the adults charged with her “education” have behaved like fools.