Board of Education overturns mandatory transfer policy


The new policy keeps five-day suspensions

for students caught with drugs or alcohol, but eliminates the controversial requirement of transferring to another high school for 10 weeks.

By Susan Reines/Special to The Malibu Times

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education overturned its controversial mandatory transfer policy last week, allowing a group of students caught intoxicated at last spring’s prom to return to Malibu High on the first day of school instead of finishing out the 10 weeks they had started to serve at Santa Monica High.

The students’ parents had been urging the board to change the policy that required students caught possessing or using drugs or alcohol to transfer to another high school for 10 weeks. The parents said transfers shattered students’ academic careers by throwing them into unfamiliar courses and put the students in danger by requiring them to travel long distances on the notoriously hazardous Pacific Coast Highway each day.

Mike Matthews, who was principal of Malibu High during last spring’s controversy but has since become an assistant superintendent, said the new policy would be applied to the students and they would be allowed to start fresh at Malibu High in September.

Like the old drug/alcohol policy, the revised policy adopted by the board Thursday calls for students caught with illegal substances to serve five-day suspensions, with recommendation for expulsion on the second offense. Matthews said the suspension punishments would be “non-negotiable.”

Requirements of 40 hours of community service and 24 hours of family counseling remain in the revised policy as well. However, there is a new option for principals to assign 12-step rehabilitation.

The major change is that principals will have the option of assigning transfer punishments, but will be able to choose whether a transfer would benefit each individual student. Instead of serving mandatory transfers, students will be placed on probation for 10 weeks, barring them from activities like sporting events and graduation ceremonies.

No board member opposed the amended policy, although Board Member Oscar de la Torre abstained, saying he did not want to support the new policy until some changes to its wording were made.

Mark Kelly, who was appointed Thursday to be the new principal of Malibu High, said in an interview earlier in the summer that he would support whatever drug/alcohol policy the board adopted. He said transfers “don’t always serve the needs of the students” and he would try to make the criteria by which he determined punishments clear to the public.

Matthews said one parent gave him a hug when she heard her child would be allowed to return to Malibu High on the first day of school.

For some parents, though, the relief of the transfer punishments being aborted was bittersweet.

Some parents have said that most students at the prom were under the influence of alcohol, and the eight students who were punished had been unfairly singled out and reprimanded at administrators’ whims while other students got away scot-free.

Matthews said the administrators at the prom singled out students who showed “visible signs” of intoxication-stumbling, for example-and smelled those students’ breaths, asked them questions, made them walk, and administered other similar sobriety gauges.

Parents said it would have been more fair to use a standard measure of intoxication, such as administering Breathalyzer tests to every student, rather than relying on administrators’ subjective impressions.

Parent Steve Campbell wrote in a letter to the The Malibu Times that Breathalyzer tests “would have fairly and accurately determined those who were actually in violation of school policy.”

Some Board of Education members, too, have endorsed the use of Breathalyzers, as well as random drug testing and drug-sniffing dogs, saying such objective measures deter substance abuse in cases where education programs do not work.

Mike Jordan, the board’s only Malibu representative, said at a June meeting that if the board was serious about curbing the district’s growing substance abuse problem, it would “have to at least consider” dogs and drug tests.

Matthews said he believed the district principals would be open to discussing such testing measures.

Parents and board members have also stressed the need for more abuse prevention education.

At Thursday’s meeting, Board Member Shane McLoud said, “I look forward to seeing proactive steps. We have a great reactive policy, and that’s a problem throughout our society, because our kids are abusing alcohol but not learning about [the dangers of] it.”

Matthews said the district had some prevention programs in place and was exploring options to add more.

New Malibu High administrators

In addition to appointing Kelly to be Malibu High principal on Thursday, the board appointed Suzanne Webb-Monastero, a former math teacher at Lincoln Middle School, and Matthew Horvath, who is new to the district but has experience as a high school dean, to be assistant principals at MHS.