Twisted Tea has alcohol in it? Who knew? I didn't.

Neither did Kayla Ryder, who took a can from her family's pantry last week and packed it for her lunch at Northley Middle School in Aston, Delaware County.  An eighth grader, she's only 13 and had never tasted liquor before opening the can and sharing it with several schoolmates.

It was an innocent mistake – but one that's exposed her to some pretty severe disciplinary actions.  Not only was she suspended from school for four days, Kayla still faces a possible misdemeanor charge, which is outrageous.  Yes, Kayla made a mistake. But this is a school matter — not one for law enforcement. Given all the studies, including a new one by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, that show black students nationwide are often more harshly punished than others, I'm concerned. The girl's parents, who moved from Lansdowne to Aston four years ago to give their two African American children a better education, are right to be asking lots of questions.

Kayla Ryder was suspended after taking a can of Twisted Tea to school in her lunch bag and sharing it with her schoolmates. She mistook the drink, which is 5 percent alcohol, for regular iced tea.
Courtesy Sakina Ryder
Kayla Ryder was suspended after taking a can of Twisted Tea to school in her lunch bag and sharing it with her schoolmates. She mistook the drink, which is 5 percent alcohol, for regular iced tea.

"We just want our child to be treated fairly,"  Sakina Ryder, Kayla's mother, told me. "The crime does not fit the punishment."

The drama, first reported by Fox 29, began unfolding last week during Kayla's 30-minute lunch period after she opened the malt beverage and shared it with several schoolmates.

Sakina Ryder was at home tending the family's backyard berry garden when the school called, saying her daughter needed to be picked up. The following day, she and her husband, Donald, a Philadelphia police officer, met with the principal and later spoke by telephone with the Penn-Delco district's superintendent, but they remain unsatisfied with how things are being handled.  Sakina Ryder, who purchased the beverage at an Acme in Granite Run on April 30, feels she made things worse by challenging school authorities about their handling of the incident.

Penn-Delco officials declined to comment but issued the following statement: "As a matter of practice, the school district does not comment publicly on information involving students or staff that is considered to be privileged. As a result, the full scope of facts that inform decisions by school administrators may be unavailable for public dissemination when incidents or events involve select students. School officials take any potential infractions to the code of conduct seriously and act only after a thorough investigation. "

Several days after her suspension, Kayla was questioned for about an hour at the Aston Police Department. While there, Kayla was offered the option of either being charged with a misdemeanor or participating in a program for first-time juvenile offenders. I tried at least a half-dozen times to speak with the Aston police. So far, they haven't explained why they're even involved in the case.

"The school dealt with the issue," pointed out David Fisher, president of the National Black Police Association, Greater Philadelphia chapter. "It shouldn't be in the police department."

"Didn't we learn anything from the Starbucks issue?" Fisher continued, referring to last month's controversial arrest of two young black men. "Someone in that police department should have said, 'You know what? No. Take this back to the school. Do not bring this to the police department. This is a school issue. You're not going to sit here now and ruin this 13-year-old girl's future to go into a high school, to go into a college, over an incident that somebody needs to use a little bit of common sense on.' "

He added, "Who reads the labels of everything we eat and drink?"

I believe Kayla and her family's account that she didn't know that Twisted Tea is 5 percent alcohol. It's an easy mistake to have made. The packaging on some of these new alcoholic drinks can be deceptive, making them appear innocuous and like soft drinks. Twisted Tea is described on its bright yellow label as a "hard iced tea," whatever that means. It's "made from beer, tea, natural flavors and sugar," according to its website. But who hasn't made a mistake like Kayla's? I remember being a kid and accidentally drinking from a spiked punch bowl at a party and also serving some to my younger sister. Should I have been arrested for child endangerment?

Sakina Ryder went public with her Twisted Tea tale because "this could have happened to anyone." And she feels part of the reason her daughter was punished so harshly is because she is an African American in a predominantly white school. That's some tea to sip — but not necessarily the Twisted variety.