Schools Move to Control Off-Campus Behavior but How Far Can They Go in Policing Students' Conduct?

Article excerpt

Most schools pay lip service to no drinking, no smoking, and no illegal drugs.

But the Parkaway School District here is going a step further. All high school students who play football, cheerlead, or participate in any other extracurricular activity must sign an abstinence pledge.

Any student violating the pledge - on campus or off - will be barred from team competition. Superintendent Jere Hochman calls the new policy a "prevention and education program." As the public calls for tighter discipline, the Parkaway district's tougher conduct code exemplifies a controversial and growing trend to expand the boundaries of school authority. Some states are passing legislation requiring or encouraging districts to have explicit codes of conduct. And many school districts are establishing policies requiring suspension or expulsion when a student is arrested, even for activities unrelated to school. But the policies are raising questions about how far school officials can go in policing student conduct. Can a student be sanctioned for swearing at a teacher at the mall? Is a fight between students at a video-game parlor grounds for expulsion? In Connecticut last month, a state judge struck a blow to local educators' efforts to police off-campus conduct. A 1995 law allowing schools to expel students for off-campus behavior that is "seriously disruptive to the educational process" was found to be unconstitutionally vague. Balking in White Plains, N.Y. Meanwhile, some students are voicing their own protest. Last fall, Elana Nightingale, a high schooler in White Plains, N.Y., refused to sign her school's code of conduct under which students who use or possess tobacco, alcohol, or drugs are automatically barred from sports or other extracurricular activities. Elana took her complaint to the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and won some modifications to the school's code. Many schools have longstanding policies barring athletes from using alcohol, drugs, or tobacco. But now those codes of conduct are being extended to students who participate in any kind of extracurricular activity, whether it be the chess team, debate club, or student council. Elana, for example, was a photo editor on the White Plains High School newspaper. School administrators find themselves stuck in the middle. "They are trying to give parents what they're asking for: a safe, orderly environment," says Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. …