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Mass. High School Suspends Student for Helping Drunken Friend

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on October 17, 2013 3:58 PM

North Andover High School, a public school outside Boston, recently drew a firestorm of criticism for disciplining a student under its zero tolerance policy after the teen gave a ride to a friend who was too drunk to drive home.

The case highlights growing legal concern about schools' zero tolerance policies.

Discipline and Punish: Designated Driver

High school senior Erin Cox headed over to a party after work solely to pick up her drunken friend. When she arrived, police were already making arrests for underage drinking and possession of alcohol, reports Boston's WBZ-TV.

Despite being cleared by police, who determined Cox hadn't been drinking and was not in possession of alcohol, North Andover High School officials cited her in violation of the district's zero tolerance policy.

As a result, the honor student with a clean disciplinary record was demoted as captain of her volleyball team and suspended from five games.

The Cox family filed a lawsuit in a district court last week to get an injunction against the disciplinary action. Though the case was tossed on jurisdictional grounds, there is constitutional precedent on overreaching zero tolerance policies at schools in Massachusetts -- but it's pretty limited.

Due Process Violation?

In 2009, Federal District Court Judge Dennis Saylor granted an eighth-grader's motion for a preliminary injunction against a suspension given to him under a zero tolerance policy. The fourteen-year-old, who was also an honors student with a pristine record, was suspended for a year for confiscating a knife from a hostile student even though he planned to turn it in to the office, reports The Boston Globe.

In implementing a "zero-tolerance'' weapons policy, it was enough for Worcester officials that the student had "possessed'' the weapon, even if only for a short time. But Judge Saylor ruled that the one-year suspension was so grossly disproportionate to any wrongdoing the student committed that it was not rationally related to any legitimate state purpose and therefore offended the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of substantive due process.

The case is significant because it was one of the first decisions by a judge invalidating a zero-tolerance policy on constitutional grounds. As a result of the court's ruling, the student was reinstated in school, and his record was expunged.

But for students like Cox who are slapped with relatively minor suspensions (here, from five athletic games), things are greyer. The Supreme Court has ruled that students facing suspension from school for 10 days or less are entitled to a fair hearing -- but what about suspensions from school activities and leadership demotions?

Either way, North Andover may want to redline its zero tolerance policy as its recent zero tolerance foible will surely disincentivize (or at the very least, give pause) to Good Samaritans like Cox from preventing DUI-related car accidents involving their fellow students.

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