By several accounts, 17-year-old Erin Cox was trying to do the right thing when she was swept up in a police raid on a party with underage drinking. Cox had spent no more than a half hour at the party in Boxford on Sept. 28 and, by her account, was looking for an intoxicated friend who had called her for a ride. A police officer wrote to school officials to attest that Cox herself wasn’t drinking. Nonetheless, officials at North Andover High School, where Cox is a senior and captain of the volleyball team, revoked her leadership role and suspended her from play for five games. Administrators explained they were taking action based on their own investigation, and on a desire to take a hard stand against underage drinking. Cox’s family has sued to get her reinstated as captain.
If Cox’s account is true, she deserves to be reinstated. If there are other facts that bear on the situation, the school should be able to reveal them. But North Andover officials said in a statement that their practice is not to release details of student discipline. “This approach is consistent with state and federal laws that pertain to the disclosure of confidential student record information,” the superintendent’s office said in a statement.
A temporary veil of silence may make sense, given that the matter has been the subject of a lawsuit, but North Andover — and all other communities — should make clear that sober students who provide rides for intoxicated friends won’t be subject to punishment. The toll of drunken driving is simply too high to discourage this form of safe transportation. Plenty of teenagers are too embarrassed or fearful of punishment to call parents or other adults for help when they’re too drunk to drive. In such instances, a classmate may be the only intervening force between the drunken teen and a deadly crash.
At the Boxford party, police issued summonses to all underaged partygoers, including Cox, whether or not they were drinking. Her insistence, backed up by the police officer, that she had had no alcohol did not prevent North Andover High from disciplining her. The family’s civil complaint was dismissed when a judge ruled that the state court did not have jurisdiction, and the family is now exploring federal options.
North Andover officials say their action was consistent with Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association rules against student athletes who get involved with underage drinking. However, these rules specifically state that they are not intended to render “guilt by association” just because a student attends a party where others are drinking. North Andover is right to take underage drinking seriously, but it should make clear that it is honoring the full spirit of those rules.