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Inconsistent Enforcement of Substance Abuse Policy Leaves Students Confused

6 mins read

Throughout high schools across the country, substance abuse on campus and at school events is a pressing concern. While M-A has seen a stark drop in campus drug use rates since the ‘90s, 2023-2024 has seen an uptick in substance use. Despite claims of administration increasing punishments, unstandardized punishments are sending the message that substance abuse is met with leniency, creating a culture of drug abuse at school. 

2020-2021 was distance learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it is excluded from the datasheet.

Teachers and campus aides tied this uptick in substance use to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as school fights increased after the return to school, M-A staff noticed an increase in substance use at school too, although the data indicates a vast decrease in substance use when compared to pre-COVID times. English teacher Laura Mercer said, “Students forgot how to act in a classroom after distance learning.” 

While the data shows a large decrease, teachers and other staff feel that there has been an increase. While many factors could explain this discrepancy, one factor could be a decrease in the number of students who are being caught due to changes in disciplinary procedures. 

Mercer said, “What campus aides can do and what administration is enforcing have changed a lot since pre-pandemic times. Because of this, I had a lot of students in class who were high.”

Campus aide Steve Guerra added, “We have to physically see the device in the student’s hands. Just seeing smoke above a group of students isn’t enough.”

Mercer said, “According to the California Education Code, if I have reasonable suspicion to suspect that a student is under the influence, then I can search a student. Reasonable suspicion can be if their eyes are red or if they smell [like a substance]. Is that being enforced here on campus? No. Not anymore.”

Muys acknowledged the shift in disciplinary strategies. He said, “Over the last five or six years, we’ve become a more restorative school. Our approach to behavior intervention has shifted along with the District, which has allocated a lot of resources and been explicit about seeking alternatives to suspension.”

“Suspension is incredibly disruptive to a student’s current academic progress and can have long-lasting consequences for students,” he added. Muys noted that trying to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline is another reason many schools seek to adopt restorative justice strategies. 

Muys said, “When it comes to substance use intervention, we have a progressive approach to discipline. We don’t suspend on the first offense and we make distinctions when determining what the next best step would be. For example, when it comes to discipline, nicotine is not treated the same as marijuana.”

Losekoot added, “There are always different situations with different contexts and then different resolutions.”

This year, in response to an increase in alcohol usage at school events, administrators threatened to breathalyze students at football games in an attempt to close the gap between student usage rates and discipline rates. Even with warnings of heightened consequences, punishments were still distributed inconsistently and even leniently. 

Even with warnings of heightened consequences, punishments were still distributed inconsistently and even leniently. 

Muys said, “We saw a spike in alcohol-related incidents at dances and football games, so we doubled down. We made a conscious decision earlier this semester to really up the consequences to have increased deterrence.”

Earlier this year, Administrators also went on M-A Today! and told students to expect patdowns, breathalyzers, and alcohol strips at campus events. More recently, students and parents were sent emails about the potential consequences of students caught under the influence of alcohol or other substances at school events. Additional messages were sent to specific upperclassmen known for ‘pregaming’ school events. 

At prom, students were randomly tested with alcohol strips. However, several students who had drunk alcohol before prom and were intoxicated at prom were tested with the alcohol strips but were not reprimanded and did not face any consequences. This led many students to believe that the strips did not work, decreasing the power of the claims of consequences.

This year, Muys said, “If you’re under the influence at a school event, you can almost always count on having some kind of suspension. The number of days may depend on a few factors such as quantity and degree of intoxication. But we try not to slice it too thinly—the bottom line is you should not be drunk or high at school or at school events.” 

Muys added, “If you have a policy, you have to enforce it.”

However, despite M-A’s stated zero-tolerance policy, there is a general consensus amongst the student body that discipline is doled out sparingly and normally lightly. If students are less scared of potential consequences, they are more likely to engage in these activities. 

Here are accounts of the punishments that interviewed students received after being caught using substances on campus. They are in chronological order, from least recent to most recent.

Last year, a student was caught on edibles at a school-related event. The student suspected the edibles were laced, as they had an adverse reaction and were throwing up repeatedly. The student was found by administrators who then informed their parents. The student was picked up from the event and later had to attend two mandatory substance abuse counseling sessions. 

Another student was also caught on edibles at the same event. Although this student was not high to the point of physical illness, the student had to complete four mandatory substance abuse counseling sessions.

This year, a student was found blackout drunk and passed out in the student section at a football game. The student’s parents were called to come pick the student up. A week went by without any communication from school officials. Two weeks after the incident, an administrator sat the student down to talk about what had happened. Ultimately, the student was banned from football games for the rest of the season and they had to attend a Saturday School. 

Shortly after, another student was discovered to be obviously intoxicated at a football game. Their parents were told to pick them up. The student explained, “Two weeks went by and nobody had talked to me so I figured I was off the hook. Then in my last class on a Friday I was called to talk to an administrator. I told Muys it was a stupid mistake and that I was sorry, and he said I was banned from a football game.” This student did not have to go to substance abuse counseling or complete any community service.

Another student was caught bringing in a can of alcohol to a football game. Their parents were informed and asked to pick them up. The student was ultimately suspended for a day. Unlike any of the other incidents, since this was an official suspension, it will go on their transcript.

Another student, caught after the other student was suspended, reported far from stringent consequences. They said, “I went to the bathroom with my friends to hit my vape and my [marijuana] cart. Just as I hit my nic, a teacher walked in and told me to come with her to the office.” The student talked to Muys and ultimately had to do two hours of community service. The student expressed their desire that their parents not be informed; their parents were not informed. 

This punishment was doled out after repeated warnings of a crackdown on substance use at school events. Loosekoot’s claims of individual consequences stand true. However, it seems that these unstandardized punishments are not effectively dissuading students from substance use. Ultimately, the administration’s leniency harms the school environment and students in the long run who are led to believe substance abuse does not lead to serious repercussions. In terms of school culture about drinking and substance use, one senior estimated that half of the people they know regularly pregame for football games and dances.

Of course, it is not feasible to expect administrators to identify all students under the influence at events, or even most students under the influence. Due to the sheer size of the school, and the comparative lack of administrators, there is no way that administrators could be aware of every single thing that every student is doing. 

However, the relative lack of enforcement accompanied by the inconsistency creates a problem. Not only are the odds of getting caught already low, but the odds of being punished severely are similarly low. The lack of follow-through on the zero-tolerance policy has made the threat of punishments ineffective. Even the few who have been caught and disciplined often do not recognize their mistakes, with several continuing to use substances at school events or on campus. 

Mercer said, “There is no understanding of consequence right now. It is beyond ridiculous. Because punishments are not being enforced, students are not realizing that it’s not okay. It’s not serving the kids either.”

Isabel is a senior at M-A. This is her first year in journalism. She is interested in writing about mental health, culture and student life. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with friends, getting coffee at Philz, and watching Shameless.

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