AUGUSTA — Parents and others expressed concern about the consequences of school polices that hand out the same punishment — of suspension from school and participation in sports and other extracurricular activities — for a student caught smoking a cigarette as for one caught using heroin.

Augusta coaches and school administrators, meanwhile, warned against lessening punishments for breaking the rules, stating that enforcing consequences for breaking the rules can help prevent costly, even life-taking, mistakes by young people.

“Many parents feel the way the policies are implemented on our kids is exceedingly punitive,” said Kathleen Mahoney. “No parent wants their child not to have consequences, but make them positive consequences. Make them do community service. Make them engage in counseling. But I don’t think they should be suspended. They need to be connected to school. They need to be involved. If you suspend them, now they’ve got all this (unstructured) time on their hands.”

The policies covering alcohol, tobacco and illegal drug use in Augusta schools generally don’t differentiate among those substances. Being caught with any one of them on school grounds is subject to the same set of punishment, which includes a three-day suspension from school for a first offense and five days for a second offense, as well as requirements for meeting with a chemical dependency counselor.

At least one school board member, Tom Connors, at-large, thinks tobacco use should not result in the same discipline as illegal drug use.

“I think the severity for some of the actions is too much,” Connors said. “I don’t think a cigarette is in the same category of a kid bringing in crystal meth or heroin. But the way we set up the discipline, the kid with the cigarette gets the same discipline as the kid with heroin. I’m not against discipline or consequences; they just shouldn’t be the same. Send the kid caught smoking to spend 20 hours at the cancer center, and then to an elementary school and make a presentation. Going to the cancer center keeps them a lot more engaged than sitting at home for three to five days.”

Much of the discussion at a Wednesday night policy committee meeting focused on the consequences of students participating in sports or other extracurricular activities and caught violating substance abuse rules.

Those rules, too, don’t set different punishments for violations of substance use rules, whether the substance is tobacco, alcohol or drugs.

Students, under the Cony High School student handbook’s rules, are suspended from athletics or other activities for six weeks for a first offense, with that period potentially reduced to four weeks at the discretion of the principal and athletic director.

A second violation would result in a 12-month suspension from athletics.

And a third violation, the handbook states, “will result in the student being barred from athletic participation for the remainder of their period of high school eligibility at Cony High School.”

Paul Vachon, athletic director, teacher and a longtime coach, said he supports the current athletic policy and the consequences it contains for substance use.

The 40-year teacher and coach spoke emotionally about how, as a young coach, he looked the other way when he knew some of his players were smoking, drinking, or using marijuana. He said he looked at it, then, as part of growing up, and as the responsibility of parents.

He said one year he lost a team manager to a drunken driving accident, and another year a former player was killed in a drunken driving accident.

He said he thinks about it every day. If he’d enforced the consequences when she was a player on his team, that former player might not have died, he thinks.

“I became a better teacher and coach. I wish I had done that before that incident,” Vachon said. “I think about it every day.”

Mark Walker said he and other parents are not against discipline. However, he said being suspended from something like sports, which can mean everything to a teenager, is too severe. He said any suspension from extracurricular activities of more than 30 days should have to be approved by the school board, and parents should have a chance to speak as part of the discipline-setting process.

“Twelve months of a child’s life being taken away is pretty severe,” he said. “The substance abuse policy, I agree with almost everything in it, except for taking 12 months of extracurricular activity, including sports, away from a child. There has got to be a better way. Require community service if a kid wants to stay involved.”

Ann LeBlanc, a forensic psychologist, also warned against suspending at-risk students from school and after-school activities such as sports.

“That leads to more of the same, more of the behaviors you don’t want,” she said of suspending students from school and athletics. “The way to change behavior is with increased engagement in sports in school, not shame. You need to change policies so when bad things happen, you’re not enacting the very things that lead to crummy behavior.”

Superintendent James Anastasio said administrators do have some discretion in setting discipline, He added that many of the alternatives suggested by commenters Wednesday are used by them. But he said suspensions need to be an option because some students won’t respond to alternatives.

Mayor David Rollins said boundaries for student athletes are important, and breaking the rules hurts the whole team, not just the player doing so. However, he applauded board members for taking inventory of school policies, and said the rising opiate addiction problem affirms the need for a solid substance abuse prevention program in schools.

Stewart Brittner, assistant principal at Cony, said students view suspensions as a serious consequence, and lessening punishment to something such as detention could result in an increase in unwanted behavior.

Laura Hamilton, chairwoman of the policy committee, said another meeting would be held to continue the discussion on substance abuse policies.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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