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Sonoma County parents fight students’ 22-day suspension

8th grader at Hillcrest Middle School, Reilly Austin, and her mother Stacia Austin are fighting back against Reilly's expulsion from school after she admitting to take a sip of alcohol from a Pepsi can while at school. Reilly says she thought it was a soda and was unaware of the alcohol, but the zero tolerance policy at the school demanded that she remain suspended for nearly a month, Monday, April 7, 2014. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

8th grader at Hillcrest Middle School, Reilly Austin, and her mother Stacia Austin are fighting back against Reilly’s expulsion from school after she admitting to take a sip of alcohol from a Pepsi can while at school. Reilly says she thought it was a soda and was unaware of the alcohol, but the zero tolerance policy at the school demanded that she remain suspended for nearly a month, Monday, April 7, 2014. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)


Three Sonoma County eighth-grade students who admitted they took a sip from a Pepsi can containing alcohol were barred from campus for more than a month, prompting their parents to say the district’s zero tolerance policy has run amok.

The case, which resulted in long-term penalties for at least three students at Hillcrest Middle School in Sebastopol, has one family considering legal action. Others say the incident calls into question district policies and decisions that prevented students from attending class for 22 consecutive school days last fall.

“Zero tolerance is not effective,” said Stacia Austin, mother of 14-year-old Reilly Austin, who admitted to taking a sip from a soda can that was later determined by school officials to contain alcohol Reilly described as whiskey.

Reilly Austin, an honor roll student who performed in the school play and captains the school’s award-winning marching band flag team, said she thought her classmate was joking at lunch on Oct. 15 when he said there was alcohol in the soda can. She took a sip, knew it was whiskey and handed it back, she said.

She did not tell a school official what had happened until questioned the next day by Principal David Fichera. She was asked to sign a “declaration of witness” statement that reiterated her belief the boy was joking before she took a sip.

“That was a mistake,” she said of not coming forward earlier. “I was scared that I was going to get in trouble and everybody else was going to get in trouble because of me. I didn’t want to be the reason everybody got in trouble.”

The families of two other eighth-graders who were disciplined in the same incident gave similar accounts of what happened and how the students were dealt with.

On Oct. 16, Reilly Austin and those two classmates were notified that a five-day suspension had been authorized and it would start immediately. It was unclear what punishment the boy who brought the alcohol to school received, but he was back in school near the date that the three other students returned, according to Stacia Austin.

On Oct. 22, Reilly Austin and her parents met with Fichera and Gravenstein Superintendent Linda LaMarre in a conference the Austins believed would pave the way for their daughter’s return to class the next morning. Reilly Austin brought with her an essay she wrote about her regret.

Instead, the Austins were presented with a letter that outlined two options going forward: Accept an extended suspension and eventual expulsion hearing with the Gravenstein School District Board of Education, or participate in an independent study program at home, with a return-to-school date of Nov. 18.

Marty Quon, whose eighth-grade daughter Amanda also admitted to sipping from the can and was sent home for five days, said he was shocked when he, too, learned his daughter would lose still more time in the classroom.

“I kept hearing ‘zero tolerance.’ So the feeling I got was they just had to do this,” Quon said.

“How is that good for them?” he said of the extended time out of school.

Quon and other parents said they would have supported making their children participate in a drug and alcohol lecture series or write a paper — something that would make their children learn from the incident.

California education code prohibits suspensions longer than five consecutive days and does not allow students to be suspended for more than 20 school days in an academic year.

LaMarre said no suspensions were longer than five days. The families say their exile was labeled “independent study,” but their children were essentially suspended for 22 days.

Unlike in true independent study, the students were barred from coming to campus during school hours and prevented from taking part in any campus activities, they said.

On Nov. 12, Reilly Austin and Amanda Quon tested the notion of whether they were truly on voluntary independent study and tried to return to school. They were still in the Quons’ car in front of the Bloomfield Road campus when a phone call from an intermediary alerted them they would not be allowed inside, according to Stacia Austin.

“It kind of proved in my mind that it was a suspension and not independent study,” she said.

Districts do not collect crucial per-pupil funding from the state while a student is suspended. They do receive those funds when students are on independent study.

Quon, who described his daughter as a strong student and flutist in the Hillcrest marching band, is considering legal action.

Hillcrest Principal David Fichera declined to comment on the incident or the punishment, citing student confidentiality.

Gravenstein School Board President Sandra Wickland said she was prohibited from speaking about any specific student’s case and declined to discuss district policy. She directed inquiries to Superintendent Linda LaMarre.

“Every case is handled depending on the facts, and the superintendent is in charge of that,” Wickland said.

LaMarre, who also serves as principal at Gravenstein Elementary School, spoke briefly about district policy but then ended the interview and did not return repeated phone calls.

“Our policy is on our website,” she said.

“The board supports a zero tolerance approach to serious offenses in accordance with state and federal law,” the policy reads. “This approach makes the removal of potentially dangerous students from the classroom a top priority and ensures the standardized treatment of all students.”

Students using alcohol may be subject to suspension or expulsion and “may be referred to an appropriate counseling program, transferred to an alternative placement, and/or be restricted from extracurricular activities,” according to district policy.

The lengthy policy goes on to say “The Superintendent or principal may use his/her discretion to provide alternatives to suspension or expulsion for a student subject to discipline under this administrative regulation, including but not limited to counseling and an anger management program.”

An extension of suspension can occur only if the superintendent or designee determines “the student’s presence at the school … would endanger persons or property or threaten to disrupt the instructional process.”

LaMarre countered claims any suspension was more than five days and said that independent study “can only be done with parents’ permission or request.”

But while students in independent study “shall have access to the same services and resources as is available to other students in the school,” parents contend their repeated attempts to get their children re-admitted to class were fruitless. In addition, students were required to pick up school work after the final bell, were barred from attending a Halloween dance and prevented from trying out for the school play, “Seussical, the Musical.”

District policy also states that “no student shall be required to participate in independent study,” but Stacia Austin said her family was given no choice at all: She either signed off on independent study or agreed to have her daughter proceed toward an expulsion hearing.

Other parents were faced with the same dilemma. The children suffered both academically and emotionally during the exile, they said.

“I’m all for my child dealing with the consequences of his actions — they can be harsh, that’s fine,” said a mother of an eighth-grade boy who admitted to taking a drink from the Pepsi can. She asked that her name not be used. “Give my child detention at lunch or don’t give him recess. He needs to be at school. He didn’t need to be excluded. He definitely fell behind.”

Reilly Austin and at least two of her classmates were out of school from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18.

On Nov. 4, about midway through Reilly Austin’s time out of school and after her parents hired an educational advocate to help them find a way to get Reilly back into class and the suspension removed from her record, the Austins were presented with a deal from the district.

Reilly would be allowed to return to class if her parents agreed to withdraw their challenge of the suspension, their request for compensation for their advocate’s fees and their request for an apology from Fichera. Also included in the deal was the district’s demand that the Austins withdraw their claim that the independent study was involuntary or signed under duress.

They did not sign.

“We were flabbergasted,” Stacia Austin said. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what I’m hearing. I said, ‘I can’t sign that. I don’t feel comfortable.’

“We wanted her back (in school) so bad,” she said. “We would have done just about anything to get her back in school, but you give up all of your rights, you give up your children’s rights, too.”

Reilly Austin didn’t want to sign the document either.

“I did want to go back to school but I didn’t want to give up the fight. I didn’t want to back down. I didn’t want them to think they could just do that,” she said. “It would all be over, but I would be too weak to stand up for what I thought.”

On Nov. 18, Reilly and her classmates returned to school.

It has taken some time to get grades back on track and their parents say the students are less trusting of authority today.

Stacia Austin said the incident has opened her eyes to the misuse of the concept of zero tolerance.

“It’s affecting real people, real kids in Sonoma County,” she said. “Kids are being lost because of policy.”

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.


Automatic suspensions falling out of favor across California

The concept of zero tolerance is falling increasingly out of favor.

Last year, Santa Rosa City Schools made a high-profile switch to a restorative justice program that asks students to make amends for their punishable offenses while staying in class. Schools in Oakland, Los Angeles and Contra Costa have adopted similar programs.

San Francisco City Schools in January adopted a policy prohibiting suspensions or expulsions for “willful defiance.” Instead, the district requires officials to use alternatives to sending kids home.

Begun in the 1980s with the war on drugs, the concept of zero tolerance later addressed gun violence. But it has since stretched to include policies on student behavior and prescriptive discipline.

In 2009-10, more than 3.3 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade across the United States were estimated to have lost classroom time because of out-of-school suspensions, according to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

The American Pediatrics Association last year called for a reduction in expulsions and out-of-school suspensions, contending the negative effects of so much missed classroom time are extensive.

A state law that went into effect in January 2013 was intended to address this dynamic. It requires school administrators to try alternative methods, such as restorative justice or community service, before meting out suspensions.

While there are five offenses that mandate expulsion, what is considered a suspendable offense is up to districts.

“Our thing was not to have nuclear devices for offenses for which kids can learn and change,” said Carlos Alcala, communications director for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who authored AB 1729, requiring administrators to first offer alternatives to suspension.

Ammiano would agree that kids should not be drinking at lunch, Alcala said. “But I think you can say very clearly that if you send a kid home for three days, they are not benefitting in the way they would be if they were in school.”

8 Responses to “Sonoma County parents fight students’ 22-day suspension”

  1. dbaker says:

    AB 2555, as amended, Bocanegra. Cradle-to-career initiatives: report. plan.

    (k) Establishing a network of services to serve families breaks line 17 down many unnecessary barriers in the effective delivery of line 18 programs and services.

    (a) The Superintendent, in conjunction collaboration line 24 with the State Department of Social Services, the Employment line 25 Development Department, the California Health and Human line 26 Services Agency, the Business, Consumer Services, and Housing line 27 Agency, the Department of Transportation, the California Children line 28 and Families Commission, the Chancellor of the California line 29 Community Colleges, the Chancellor of the California State line 30 University, the President of the University of California, the line 31 California Workforce Investment Board, the Department of Parks line 32 and Recreation, teacher organizations, chambers of commerce, line 33 industry representatives, research centers, parent organizations, line 34 school administrators, representatives of regional occupational line 35 centers and programs, community-based organizations, labor line 36 organizations, and other interested parties deemed appropriate by line 37 the Superintendent,
    shall develop a report that explores the line 38 feasibility of establishing and expanding cradle-to-career initiatives line 39 that are collective-impact strategies with all of the following tenets:
    98 AB 2555 — 3 —

    line 5 (b) The five-year plan shall include all of the following:
    c) (1) For purposes of this section, cradle-to-career initiatives line 28 include, but are not limited to, collaborative school and community line 29 programs and services that align local, state, federal, and private line 30 resources and that focus on the following objectives:
    line 31 (A) Ensuring that children are healthy.
    line 32 (B) Increasing the learning opportunities and academic line 33 achievement of all pupils.
    line 34 (C) Strengthening family structures.
    line 35 (D) Establishing safe neighborhoods.
    line 36 (E) Expanding college and career opportunities.

    SB 1055, as amended, Liu. Public School Health Center Support Program.

    line 24 (a) A school health center receiving grant funds pursuant to this line 25 section shall meet or have a plan to meet the following line 26 requirements:
    line 27 (1) Strive to provide a comprehensive set of services including line 28 medical, oral health, mental health, alcohol and substance abuse, line 29 health education, and related services in response to community line 30 needs.
    line 31 (2) Provide primary and other health care services, provided or line 32 supervised by a licensed professional, which may include all of line 33 the following:
    line 34 (A) Physical examinations, immunizations, and other preventive line 35 medical services.
    line 36 (B) Diagnosis and treatment of minor injuries and acute medical line 37 conditions.
    line 38 (C) Management of chronic medical conditions.
    line 39 (D) Basic laboratory tests.
    line 40 (E) Referrals to and followup for specialty care.
    line 1 (F) Reproductive health services.
    line 2 (G) Nutrition services.
    line 3 (H) Mental health services provided or supervised by an line 4 appropriately licensed mental health professional may include: line 5 assessments, crisis intervention, counseling, treatment, and referral line 6 to a continuum of services including emergency psychiatric care, line 7 evidence-based mental health treatment services, community line 8 support programs, inpatient care, and outpatient programs. School line 9 health centers providing mental health services as specified in this line 10 section shall consult with the local county mental health department line 11 for collaboration in planning and service delivery.
    line 12 (I) Oral health services that may include preventive services, line 13 basic restorative services, and referral to specialty services.
    line 14 (3) Strive to address the population health of the entire school line 15 campus by focusing on prevention services such as group and line 16 classroom education, schoolwide prevention programs, and line 17 community outreach strategies.
    line 18 (4) Strive to provide integrated and individualized support for line 19 students and families and to act as a partner with the student or line 20 family to ensure that health, social, or behavioral challenges are line 21 addressed.
    line 22 (5) Work in partnership with the school nurse, if one is employed line 23 by the school or school district local educational agency, to provide line 24 individual and family health education; school or districtwide line 25 health promotion; first aid and administration of medications; line 26 facilitation of student enrollment in health insurance programs; line 27 screening of students to identify the need for physical, mental line 28 health, and oral health services; referral and linkage to services line 29 not offered onsite; public health and disease surveillance; and line 30 emergency response procedures. A school health center may line 31 receive grant funding pursuant to this section if the school or school line 32 district local educational agency does not employ a school nurse. line 33 However, it is not the intent of the Legislature that a school health line 34 center serve as a substitute for a school nurse employed by a local line 35 school or school district educational agency.
    line 36 (6) Have a written contract or memorandum of understanding line 37 between the school district local educational agency and the health line 38 care provider or any other community providers that ensures line 39 coordination of services, ensures confidentiality and privacy of
    line 1 health information consistent with applicable federal and state line 2 laws, and integration of services into the school environment.
    line 3 (7) Serve all registered students in the school regardless of line 4 ability to pay.
    line 5 (8) Be open during all normal school hours, or on a more limited line 6 basis if resources are not available, or on a more expansive basis line 7 if dictated by community needs and resources are available.
    line 8 (9) Establish protocols for referring students to outside services line 9 when the school health center is closed.
    line 10 (10) Facilitate transportation between the school and the health line 11 center if the health center is not located on school or school district line 12 local educational agency property.

  2. Robert says:

    You are all expecting rational thinking and decisions from an irrational system.

    Of course they allowed them to sign up for independent study to get more money. Most don’t know that in the 90′s, Santa Rosa High listed 40% of it’s students as “Present” when they had dropped out and scammed the state for over $2 million and didn’t have to pay it back when caught. Don’t expect ethics or rational.

  3. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    We all did stuff in high school (even a goody two shoes like me). I might have done exactly the same thing not believing what I was being told thinking someone was pulling my leg. I think that if a student is performing well in school, attending regularly and staying out of trouble she should be given the benefit of doubt, a “talk” then back to class. It seems counter productive to punish this well performing young girl which might stay on her record and harm her future. There is crime and there is CRIME. Zero tolerance makes no sense to me. What happened to detention or assigning an essay, “Why we should not drink”.

    It seems to me this whole thing revolves around her not reporting this, not that she actually took a sip of alchohol.

  4. PapaESoCo says:

    Steveguy, thanks, just truly enjoyed your HS reminiscences, and totally agree with you. I am not going to get into some of the stuff I did, uh, back in the day.

  5. Honor Parents says:

    our hearts go out to the girls who made naïveté choices. Maybe they did not get the whole don’t take candy from strangers accept offers carefully lesson. I feel sorry for them having false friends tempting them with tainted soda , with friends like that who needs enemies.
    True Zero tolerance would have resulted in being expelled period, what they got was a time out which was obviously inconvenient . Parents who now say they have issue with school policy after signing they agreed to it ….fine whatever but do you have to use your kids as shield weapons for your issue with the policy. These girls need real friends and real support.

  6. honor Boy says:

    Parents should not let the press use the students name or the mistake will be seen on the web for a long time good luck finding a babysitting or other first job with your school mistake out there like that…
    I wondered about that girl and sis in last years talent show dressed in catsuits dancing rigoursly to Beyoncé all the single ladies go boom boom boom…. Also at school the teacher and students had a different story that said the girls were pressured and bullied to drink and now the parents are saying they were
    Pressured but they are adults and signed for independent study for the kids. I think the school principal and others redoing there job that the policy says

  7. Steveguy says:

    Many kids go to school all high on pills- prescribed by a Doctor ! Or not.

    I have Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance. Are school administrators the dumbest people on the planet or does it just seem that way every time a story like this comes up ?

    I was caught a few times in High School doing what kids will do. My grades were up and my extracurricular activities productive. First time for an herb was a 4 day suspension, so I went up to a lake or the beach to ” serve my time”. Second time I told them flat out that they were wrong and I got a 2 day suspension. I went fishing. The third time I was just caught and the ‘narcs’ had fun with me. Warning only. This was all off campus, and I was a decent student, etc.

    I didn’t need the punishment and it would have adversely effected my duties at the school.

    Besides the stuff they didn’t catch me for. ( Developing in the photog darkroom with my HS sweetie )

    Hey teacher, leave them kids alone ! Except of course when you have a young person in need of counseling and attention- then like even Brad Pipal on the comments said ” Never, never, remove the student from classes.
    After school on the black board one hour each day for one month. ”

    One time my Chemistry teacher said ” Steve, great question, ask me tomorrow when you haven’t smoked”. I did, and we ended up having an hour discussion on molecular bondings and I got promoted to test tube washer and supply room duty. Big mistake these days because I played with the stuff that does fire. Ouch, another Zero Tolerance thing.

    Why are they punishing kids for being kids when some good guidance is the preferable answer. ( Not some lame “classes” to attend. ) Please picture the historical ‘eye-roll’ that teens have perfected forever. It’s an evolutionary thing implanted inside our very souls.

    Violence is another matter and should be taken case by case also. Most times an innocent kid gets suspended for someone trying to beat them up. Zero Tolerance is BOTH get suspended equally.

    School Administrators should be brought to the Principal’s Office and given swats. Really

  8. bear says:

    This is a travesty. If these rules had applied in my high school, NO ONE would have graduated.

    It is seriously unethical to put these kids on “independent study” in order to collect state funds for students who ARE NOT THERE. Is that part of the “lesson plan?” In Sebastopol? Nothing more than a scam on the taxpayers.

    Really, does taking an unwise sip from a soft drink can call for this BS? Especially when it can affect the lifetime records of the students involved? The punishment far exceeds the “crime”

    If we were talking about sales of meth, coke, ecstasy or even grass, I might have a different opinion.

    Meanwhile, I think the honest loss of state funds for FAILING to educate students should be paid for out of the administrator’s salaries.