When a Unionville High School administrator spotted a visibly intoxicated student at a football game in September, it triggered a school probe into underage drinking and e-cigarette use that led to 20 suspensions, roiling the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District – and that was just the beginning.
Next came the backlash. Parents of many of the suspended high schoolers clashed with school leaders at heated board meetings and, in some cases, hired lawyers to contest the punishment – arguing that the 10-day out-of-school suspensions for drinking were too severe, hampered their kids' learning and, most important, would wreck their chances at getting into a good college.
With the controversy dragging on for months, Unionville-Chadds Ford is now weighing a radical overhaul in its disciplinary policies that officials say would make it the first Pennsylvania district to allow for the rescission of student suspensions – a chance to wipe the record clean after a period of good behavior.
Jeff Hellrung, school board president in the 4,000-student district that sprawls across parts of Delaware and Chester Counties, said school administrators fairly and properly meted out the punishments. But he said the flap has now convinced him that "10 days is excessive" and that "if we have a well-behaved child that does something unfortunate, if they keep their record clean they can apply for that to be rescinded."
The new policy, which is still being drafted and could be voted on as early as March, would be welcome news to parents who've complained that – with many colleges now using the Common Application that asks about student suspensions and criminal convictions – the punishments would derail their kids' dreams for higher education. Indeed, that topic is still so sensitive that parents declined to speak on the record for this article for fear of angering school officials.
The brouhaha has unexpectedly put one of Pennsylvania's most affluent and high-achieving suburban districts at the cutting edge of a national debate over the merits of suspensions. Critics question what good is accomplished by taking kids away from the classroom and cite statistics that non-white students and the disabled are disproportionately punished, although that isn't the issue in Unionville, which is 93 percent white.
"There's not research to support that these suspensions make schools safer or are effective tools to teach students better behavior," said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center, which has lobbied against school suspensions, especially for younger kids. "There is research that shows the very negative consequences of excluding children from school."
A 2016 American Psychological Association report found large racial disparities in suspensions and said the time out of school led to increased delinquency and higher dropout rates. And Pennsylvania doles out a higher than average rate of suspensions – ranking 20th among the 50 states, according to a 2016 report by the state legislature's research arm.
The debate has already led to some changes. The Philadelphia School District two years ago ended the practice of suspending kindergartners for nonviolent disciplinary infractions, with advocates calling for the policy to be extended throughout grade school. In Harrisburg, lawmakers have begun looking at legislation that aims to ban suspensions in the lower grades statewide while making them less frequent for older students in nonviolent incidents.
In Unionville-Chadds Ford, which boasts of its 100 percent graduation rate and the 3rd highest average SAT scores in the state, board members said that suspensions had been meted out rarely and that the practice hadn't generated much controversy – until the Unionville football game against Avon Grove on Sept. 8.
After the game, school administrators launched an investigation into reports of widespread drinking as well as kids who were "Juuling" – using a popular, banned type of e-cigarette. Lacking hard evidence, board members said the 15 10-day suspensions for alcohol use and lesser suspensions for e-cigarette use were given to students who confessed under questioning to taking part.
But many parents of the punished students cried foul. Not over their kids' being disciplined, but over the way the investigation was handled. They said kids were called into an office and pressured to confess and name others involved. Administrators took their cell phones so they couldn't call their parents. Students who confessed got suspended while those who denied involvement got off with no punishment at all.
Victor Dupuis, vice president of the board, acknowledged that cell phones were taken, to keep kids from coordinating stories, but said they were offered school phones to call home. Parents maintain that didn't happen.
But school board members and parents who spoke privately said the biggest complaints were about both the severity and uniformity of the 10-day suspensions – kids received the same harsh penalty, whether they were the organizers who purchased the booze or just partook. There was anger that kids missed so much class as well as two weeks of sports. But the biggest worries were the impact on college applications in a district where, according to its own stats, 96 percent of graduates go on to higher education.
"College is the major concern," said school board member John Murphy, who noted that the lack of discretion in the suspension policy suddenly seemed like "a major flaw" after the football-game incident. He said the idea for the rescission of suspensions is similar to provisions in criminal law; Pennsylvania's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, for example, allows many nonviolent offenders to expunge their convictions. Said Murphy: "If the student has shown remorse, or some period of good behavior, it would be a good practice to clear their record."
Officials haven't decided yet how long students will have to wait to apply.
Daniel Obregon, a spokesman for the Common Application, said not all of the 750 colleges that accept the form want information on suspensions and criminal backgrounds. Some choose to suppress answers to those questions but he didn't say how many.
Dupuis said there are strong arguments that suspensions send a message to discourage others from underage drinking and that, "in a district with highly motivated students, we would say having a zero-tolerance policy is … important for the development of students." He noted that families have the ability to challenge the suspensions and many have – although none have been reversed so far.
Hellrung, the school board president, said that although he believes the accused students were treated fairly, the scope of the incident has led to a re-evaluation.
"We're not doing anything for the kids when they're out of school for 10 days," said Hellrung, who noted that the board is also looking to give administrators more discretion in the duration of suspensions. "I think we're going to come out of it with something better."
The board unanimously supported the changes at a recent school board meeting.
Superintendent John Sanville said the rescission policy would be retroactive to July 2017. That would allow the suspended students, most of whom are sophomores or juniors, to apply if they had no other marks on their record. For seniors, who have already faced college deadlines, it could be too late.