Students Feel Conduct Codes Fail to Deter Illegal Behavior

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At the moment that a student who attends Staples High School is arrested by a local police officer, an enveloped report of the arrest is sent through the mail directly to the Superintendent of Schools- Dr. Elliott Landon.

From the Superintendent’s office, a copy of the arrest report is faxed to Principal John Dodig, after which an in or out of school suspension may serve as punishment depending on the offense and its severity. A report copy will also go to one of Staples’ four Assistant Principals, who use online databases hosted by eSchool (the operator of the Westport Public Schools network) to check and see if the particular student is bound by a Code of Conduct.

All Staples athletes and members of “major organizations, containing about 70 people or more,” according to Dodig, are signatories to various agreements regarding participant behavior and outline zero-tolerance policies towards drugs and alcohol. Besides athletic programs, members of Staples Players, Junior State of America, and “Inklings” are some of the organizations held to a Code of Conduct.

The Athletic Code of Conduct is the oldest of the Codes in place at Staples; according to Physical Education teacher and boys’ track coach Laddie Lawrence, the original version was drafted in 1980 in compliance with a new requirement of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. Despite this fact, most of the non-athletic Codes were late to follow suit and were implemented five years ago or less.  Since the late 90’s, Athletic Director Marty Lisevick has seen the Code develop and evolve.

“When I came here 11 years ago, and [an athlete] violated the Code on a first offense, he or she was usually kicked off the team and attorneys often got involved. It was a real mess. However, two years after that, the coaches, assistant principals and I met to discuss the Code’s flaws. Thus, it’s currently much more ‘forgiving’ than it was before,” Lisevick said.

Police Captain Foti Koskinas (Staples graduate ’89) emphasizes how punishments can be subject to a variety of factors following a legal infraction.

“We [the police department] have concerns about the safety of high school students. The physical and emotional burdens of drug and alcohol usage on the student are just as important as the legal side of the issue. ‘Zero tolerance’ doesn’t mean an arrest will be made. It just implies that some type of action will be taken, whether that be with the school, the individual’s parents, coach, or some form of legal action,” Koskinas said.

According to Koskinas, State Statutes require the police department to notify the school if an arrest is made off of school grounds. However, the Staples administration is limited in its capacity to punish a student following an arrest or other offense.

“The school usually only has jurisdiction over events that happen on school premises or at a school sponsored event. The only other type of case where the school is responsible is if a student does something that interferes with the educational mission of the school. Getting caught with beer is different than being caught with cocaine; in the second instance the person may have had the intent to sell it to other students,” he continued. “We also can’t suspend a student based on hearsay.”

Nonetheless, a total of 137 academic suspensions were issued over the course of the 2009-10 school year, according to statistics provided by the Assistant Principal’s office.

In the case of the athletics department, Lisevick sometimes hears from coaches and students about illegal activities that occur off of school grounds, even if no arrest is made. These offenses, if verified, fall under violations of the Code of Conduct and may result in a suspension from athletic activities despite no suspension from school.

First offense violations in a given athletic season usually equate to a 20-day suspension from athletics, second offenses constitute a season-long suspension, and subsequent infractions result in suspension from all athletics during the school year. Nonetheless, the length of an athletic suspension depends upon the offense, its severity, and how it was brought to the attention of the athletic department.

“The Code IS the Code, so the suspensions are usually very standard… however if an athlete is upfront and honest about what he or she did, the terms are generally a bit more lenient. I’ve known of students that called their coach or myself the day after a big party, and we’ve been able to discuss the appropriate course of action. Still, a first offense that would usually be a twenty-day suspension may become a month-long suspension if the athlete lies or waits for a police report to come in. The worst scenario is when we have to go out to find kids and bring them into the office,” said Lisevick.

According to Lisevick, approximately 10 to 12 athletes are arraigned for violations of the Code per year. During the 2009-10 school year, two school suspensions were issued by the Staples administration for alcohol and drug use. However, some students believe that the number of underage infractions is much higher than the number of people caught, especially among athletes.

One male Staples athlete, who wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of the subject, expressed how he feels that the Code is entirely ineffective at curbing underage drinking.

“Of the people who violate the Code, only a small fraction of them get caught. Personally, I’ve never seen someone get caught [for drug or alcohol use]. The most ridiculous part about it is that some athletes are signing a document that they have no intention of abiding by,” he said.

Dodig disagrees, instead suggesting that the fact that the Code is in place puts a responsibility on the part of the individual athlete.

“The Code is the best defense against illegal activity by athletes that we have. In my opinion, it’s unethical to sign something if you won’t abide by it… it’s similar to taking out a mortgage or signing a contract. If your word isn’t worth anything, then that’s just sad,” Dodig said.

However, according to the student, in some cases athletes disregard the Code altogether and even flaunt pictures on the Internet.

“There are plenty of photos of student athletes drinking on Facebook. It’s not uncommon to see a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other,” he said.

Several other students substantiate the claim that drinking is prevalent among athletes under a variety of circumstances. One female student at Staples, who identified herself as a varsity athlete and a regular drinker, wished to remain anonymous due to risk of self-incrimination.

“Drinking among athletes is widespread in every Staples sport… it doesn’t really matter if the particular sport is in season, either. While people’s attitudes towards alcohol don’t shift in the on or off-season, nobody is stupid enough to drink the night before a game… I generally go out at the end of the week; Saturdays are preferable,” she said.

The student also expressed sentiments that a sense of irreverence towards underage drinking laws and reiterated that the codes exists among the entire student body, not just the athletic population.

“I think the way Staples students feel about the law is that they can do whatever they want. Take last year’s homecoming for example. Even though it was obvious that [many students] were drinking in the stands, most of them were not suspended or taken off their respective teams,” she said.

In addition to the responsibility of the school system, the individual athlete, and the athletics department for an athlete’s actions, Dodig believes that parents of athletes play a pivotal role in setting a precedent for behavior.

“What should happen is that parents and their students ought to communicate so that they are both aware of the consequences of breaking the Code. If a parent knows that their child went to a party that served alcohol during an athletic season, he or she should tell the student to own up to the consequences. It’s impossible to guarantee a drug-free environment without hiring tons of security personnel and constructing a giant wall around Staples. Nobody wants to live like that; in the end it’s really a family issue,” Dodig said.

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