A 17 year old honor student in Massachusetts has been punished by her school for showing up to a party where high school kids were drinking alcohol. Normally that would not be news in this age of zero tolerance and zero common sense. However, this child, Erin Cox, was completely sober and was only there to pick up her friend who had been drinking. She arrived as a designated driver in order to prevent her intoxicated friend from driving or riding in a car with another kid who had been drinking. The police have corroborated that she was not drinking and was only there when the police arrived because she showed up to pick up her friend. Ms. Cox, clearly doing the right thing, has been stripped of her captain status on the school volleyball team and benched from playing for 5 games. Her family has had to hire a lawyer to try to deal with the school.
The message that the school is sending is that if your friend has been drinking, it is better to tell them to drive drunk or ride with someone who is drunk than call for a sober ride. I remember when I was in high school there were groups like S.A.D.D. (Students Against Drunk Driving) in which the entire strategy of the group was to design ways to get home safely in the event that you drank some alcohol. Those strategies included calling a friend or your parents. The important thing was that you didn’t drive. Those days are apparently over. In complete denial of reality, the law and schools have ignored the fact that teenagers have always experimented and will always experiment with alcohol and set up “zero tolerance” schemes which don’t do anything to curb the experimentation, but do succeed at driving the underage drinking underground where it is far less safe and more likely to result in injury or death. What child would provide a safe, sober ride for friends who had been drinking if it meant risking punishment at school? What child would call an ambulance if a friend drank too much if it meant getting arrested and kicked off all of the sports teams?
In Johnson County, Kansas, even the mere accusation of being a minor in possession of alcohol or consuming alcohol means that some schools will ban the child from all extra-curricular activities for a year (Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission School Districts, for instance). I have seen kids kicked off football teams, debate teams, cheerleading and other positive, healthy influences in their lives as a result of getting a ticket for being at a party, even if there is little to no evidence that they were drinking. That is counter-intuitive and counter-productive if you ask me. An MIP/MIC conviction in Kansas brings certain penalties, including fines, probation, the threat of removal from the home (in the case of juveniles) or jail (in the case of minor adults) and an automatic suspension of driving privileges. That is just the criminal case. There are also the previously mentioned school ramifications as well as other social and professional costs. The price for drinking underage can be so high that, again, it has driven the kids to be even more clandestine. It has led to binge drinking and trying to drink large quantities quickly to avoid detection. It has led to the use of pharmaceutical drugs which are much easier to obtain and much harder for police, parents and school officials to detect.
Underage drinking is dangerous. A lot of kids have been hurt and killed and had their futures destroyed by alcohol, and particularly by alcohol and driving. But, the solution to the problem is not to turn the kids into criminals, to strip them of the good things they have in their life (like sports, debate, National Honor Society), and to discourage them from doing the right thing by providing safe and sober rides to one another. This situation with the young lady in Massachusetts, reminds me of the DUI cases in which people are found sleeping in their cars and then charged with drunk driving. What did you want them to, drive home as quick as possible so as to avoid being found by the police? Don’t we want to encourage people to pull over if they don’t feel safe to drive? We are actually encouraging the behavior the law is supposed to prevent by punishing the good decision-making. Hopefully, someone in Massachusetts will come to their senses and see that this child and the friend that called her should be held up as a model of responsible behavior and they will do the right thing. Unfortunately, that is not likely.