Guilt by association? Howard County: Some say drug/alcohol rule is unfair, but it sends a strong message.

December 05, 1996

SOME ARE CALLING it the "guilt by association" rule. That is, the proposed change in the drug and alcohol policy of the Howard County public schools that would hold a student responsible for being in the same room or car with another student who is violating the law while on school property.

Callers to school headquarters and some TV and radio reports have insinuated that the proposal is unfair. The worry is that "good" students will be suspended because they happen to be sitting in class or going to the bathroom when a peer gets caught possessing marijuana nearby, for example.

That is not what this change prescribes. "It is not guilt by association. It is guilt by knowledge," says Judith Bresler, counsel to the school system. Under the change, due for a board vote in a week, students may be culpable if they a) know that alcohol or drugs are present, b) have access to the substances, and c) are in a position to make a decision about remaining in that situation.

Outside the classroom, the legal precedent is called "constructive possession." It is often employed by police while arresting someone in a car where drugs are found or in a house where an arrest is being executed.

This policy revision would not be inconsistent with the way Howard's school system has carried out its zero-tolerance policy. But the board has wrestled with appeals in the past from students who argued that they were innocent because they were not a party to illegal activity happening around them. The vTC message to young people is being sharpened now: If you find yourself in the midst of an unlawful situation, get out -- and quickly.

Our main hesitation is that school officials must remain cognizant of the herculian grip of peer pressure on teens. In fact, school board member Stephen Bounds and State's Attorney Marna McLendon are visiting PTA groups with a program called "Not My Kid" to offer advice for parents on helping their children cope in a community where teen drinking is rampant.

Expecting a 16-year-old to lecture his or her friends on the evils of alcohol or drugs might be unrealistic. Expecting a young person to exit the scene if wrongdoing is occuring -- before the authorities move in -- is not.

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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