After over 100 students skip school, some question punishment

Some Melrose residents are calling for a review of the school district’s policies after dozens of high school seniors who skipped school and were discovered by police at a party where alcohol was found were not suspended from sports or other activities.

The party occurred on March 14, the same day as Senior Skip Day in Melrose. That day, more than 100 Melrose High School seniors did not attend school. According to Marianne Farrell, the school’s principal, many parents notified the school that their children would be absent that day.

By 12:30 p.m., much of the senior class had congregated at a house on Briggs Street. Melrose Police Chief Michael Lyle said when officers arrived, “Kids were jumping out of every opening in the house trying to get away.”

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Lyle said police searched the house and found empty alcohol bottles and cans. Lyle said since no one was holding or possessing alcohol and there was no way to identify who brought the alcohol, no one was charged with underage drinking.

Instead, police called dozens of parents who were asked to come to the house and pick up their children. Lyle said police notified the property owners of the house about the city’s Social Host Liability Ordinance. A first violation results in a warning. “It was the strongest action we could take,” said Lyle.

After the incident, high school officials held a meeting with the families of the students who attended the party. Superintendent Cyndy Taymore said those students also were required to attend substance abuse educational classes and perform community service.

Taymore declined to say if any student-athletes or extracurricular club members were present at the party. According to the school’s student handbook, any student-athlete or club member found to be in the presence of alcohol or a controlled substance would be suspended for two consecutive games and/or be suspended for four weeks from any high school club. The policy also calls for students to be removed from “any leadership position they hold in a sport, club, or organization.”

The district’s policy toward truancy is more lenient for first offenders, who do not automatically receive a suspension.

Paul Wetzel, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s spokesman, said the MIAA’s alcohol and drug policy does not punish students for being in the presence of alcohol. “We do not have a guilt by association,” said Wetzel, who added that schools are not required to inform the association when a player has violated the MIAA or school district rules.

Patricia Wright, a Melrose lawyer, thinks the district’s response to the party sends the wrong message to students and parents. “I’m concerned about my community, that parents would actually call their kids in sick for this,” she said. “Does it take alcohol poisoning or someone’s death from a car accident to wake this community up?”

This is the second time since 2011 that the Melrose school district has had to deal with high school students drinking. Two years ago, 11 Melrose High athletes were suspended after photos posted on Facebook showed them drinking or smoking tobacco.

Claymore said the district planned to review its handbook and policies but said she thought the students had been punished enough. “Part of growing up is making dumb choices and learning from them, and we’re hoping that that will be the case here,” she said.

Mayor Robert Dolan, who also serves on the School Committee, said Senior Skip Day is a longstanding tradition in the city, but he didn’t condone the party. He also said teens learn by making mistakes, and he backed Claymore’s decision to not suspend any of the party-goers.

“I don’t think we want to ruin a kid’s life. I think we want to be in the lesson-teaching business,” he said. “What do we want to do, put these kids in jail for showing up at a party?”

In recent years, the city has invested heavily in its drug and alcohol awareness curriculum, and has hired additional health educators. Dolan said parents should spend more time discussing the dangers of alcohol and drugs with their kids.

“We educate kids continuously; we have full-time staff that educate about alcohol and drug addiction,” he said. “There’s nothing more that a school system can do with kids. The bigger question is: Are schools raising kids?”

Maryann Hollis, a former Melrose School Committee member who works as a nurse with recovering substance abusers, said parents should be more aware of the dangers of alcohol and binge drinking. According to a 2011 state study, 40 percent of the state’s high school students reported drinking alcohol in the previous 30 days, and 22 percent reported binge drinking (having five or more drinks of alcohol in a row within a couple of hours) in the previous 30 days.

“I think the message is lost on the parents in the community,’’ said Hollis. “Some will say it’s a rite of passage, but they’re starting at a much younger age and the gateway drug is alcohol.”

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