School board likely to overturn mandatory transfer policy

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Students caught using drugs or alcohol at school events will probably face punishments closer to home. Parents and teachers complain that transfer policy puts students’ grades and lives in danger.

By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times

After parents and teachers railed against the school district’s policy to force students caught with drugs or alcohol to transfer to another high school for 10 weeks, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education came to an informal consensus to overturn the mandatory transfer policy at last week’s meeting. The board members will not officially vote until August, but they told parents to expect the policy to be changed.

The issues of drugs and alcohol reached a fever pitch in Malibu this spring after 20 Malibu High students were caught intoxicated on a school trip to New York and eight failed Breathalyzer tests at the Malibu High prom.

Of the eight intoxicated students at the prom, six were transferred to Santa Monica High for the remainder of the school year. If the mandatory transfer policy stands, the students will have to complete their punishments with six more weeks at Santa Monica High in September. The other two intoxicated prom-goers were seniors, and they were placed in an independent study program and barred from attending graduation.

Five Malibu parents attended Thursday’s board meeting to urge the board members to overturn the mandatory transfer policy, saying the transfers put students at a disadvantage academically and put them in danger for two hours each day on the accident-riddled Pacific Coast Highway.

One Malibu parent said her daughter has been informed that she cannot take advanced placement chemistry when she returns to Malibu High, if she spends the first six weeks of the school year at Santa Monica. “It really has discouraged her school-wise,” the parent said.

Another parent said all her fears about the transfers were realized-students got into accidents on the PCH, had to take finals at Santa Monica that were based on books they had never used, and received low grades.

“The teachers don’t know what to do with the kids; the kids don’t know what to do,” the mother said. “It totally disrupts the family and the kid just feels thrown away.”

The parents urged the board to give principals discretion over whether to transfer students. They encouraged the board to preserve the portion of the punishment that mandates family drug and alcohol counseling, saying that had been effective in opening lines of communication.

Malibu High Student Body President Sam Bishop told the board that her peers feel the transfers alienated and endangered them. “Students feel that going to a new school in the middle of a semester, the middle of a grading period, only adds to the stress that school puts upon them,” she said.

With the evidence stacked against transfers’ effectiveness, the board seemed inclined to change the policy.

“It’s hard to find anybody that is for this mandatory policy anymore,” said Mike Jordan, the board’s lone Malibu member.

The board members agreed that their August 19 vote would likely end the mandatory transfer policy. As for the eight Malibu students who are in the middle of transfer punishments, the board decided they would consider each case individually to see whether the transfer was harmful or beneficial, but parents could assume that transfers would not be enforced against students’ wishes.

“If we don’t think it’s a good policy there’s no reason to see it through, just for the sake of seeing it through,” said Board Member Emily Bloomfield.

Although there seemed to be unanimous agreement to end mandatory transfers, the question of what will replace them remains. Many board members expressed worry that allowing principals to dole out punishments subjectively could lead to unfair distribution of consequences. In August the board will consider details of a new punishment policy.

In addition to reforming the punishment for drug- and alcohol-users, the board considered revamping drug abuse prevention measures.

Gloria Martinez, assistant principal at Malibu High, said students should begin training on saying “no” in kindergarten. Malibu High teacher John Cary endorsed a more hands-on approach, suggesting random drug testing and having Breathalyzers and drug-sniffing dogs at the doors to school events.

Jordan supported Cary’s ideas. “I think if we’re really serious about it, we have to at least consider things like dogs and drug testing and things like that, and it’s really kind of sad in a way,” he said.

The board members agreed to work throughout next fall to implement more effective prevention programs, although later in the evening they dealt a blow to drug prevention when they approved a 2004/05 budget that included a 10 percent funding cut to the Drug Free School program.