Niskayuna school officials say they are re-evaluating efforts to curb youth alcohol abuse after eight students were found to be drunk at a recent high school football game.
One student was taken to the hospital for evaluation because of his intoxication at the Sept. 23 home football game against Saratoga Springs. The other students did not require medical attention, according to Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio.
School officials are releasing few details to protect student privacy but the student was apparently 15 years old.
Students caught under the influence of alcohol receive a five-day suspension for a first offense, according to the district’s code of conduct.
The incident has prompted Salvaggio, who has been on the job since July, to examine how the district handles drug and alcohol problems. She told the Board of Education on Tuesday night that one issue is the district hires off-duty police officers to provide supervision and a show of authority at the game, but those officers do not exercise police powers or make arrests.
“They’re not going to act as police officers unless we request them to do so,” she said.
Salvaggio said she believes police should be involved and youths caught under the influence should potentially face criminal charges, as well as school penalties.
“I think it should be done consistently. If we’re not doing that consistently, then that sends a message that drug and alcohol use at our schools is OK,” she said.
Salvaggio said that alcohol use has been cited as a problem during meetings she has had with community members. There is a perception in the community that the school is turning a blind eye, she said.
“I have not seen evidence of that,” she said.
Salvaggio also discussed whether the district should bring in drug dogs to search students for drug paraphernalia. Salvaggio said she worked in two districts where they were conducted, with vastly different results. The school district would need to communicate in advance about doing those searches.
“It’s going to draw some attention to the school,” she said.
Board member Debra Gordon agreed that it is a touchy issue.
“I think there are probably some parents who would want to bury their heads in the sand and not admit or realize that their kids are doing drugs,” she said.
Board member Robert Winchester cautioned that the school doesn’t want to create an environment where students are afraid to bring problems to school officials because they fear the consequences.
“If you drive this much further underground, we’re going to have a much worse problem,” he explained.
High school Principal John Rickert said students are informed about the punishments for drug and alcohol use during an assembly at the start of the school year. School officials own the lockers and therefore have the right to search them with probable cause and at least two people present. Students are told that they are responsible for the items in their locker, Rickert said.
Students punished for an alcohol infraction also receive a five-week ban from attending any school functions. They can attempt to reduce that by agreeing to three counseling sessions.
Alcohol and drug awareness is also part of the district’s ninth-grade health curriculum.
Niskayuna Police Chief John Lubrant said Wednesday he was encouraged by Salvaggio’s proactive stance. In the past, he said, some matters have been handled internally by the school without police involvement, while officers have been called at other times. The interaction was a bit more frequent when a school resource officer was assigned there, he said, but that position was cut because of budget constraints.
Lubrant said if students were caught in possession of alcohol, officers could cite them for alcohol violations. It depends on the specific circumstances and the age of the offender, he said.
Police handle maybe five to 10 calls a year for house parties where underage youths are using alcohol, he said.
“I don’t think it’s any different than anywhere else,” Lubrant said. “It clearly exists.”
Officers also check parks and other popular youth hangouts and monitor liquor stores, he said. They partner with state police on stings of local businesses to see if they are selling alcohol to minors.
While Niskayuna does not have a drug dog, it would be able to obtain one from either Schenectady police, state police or the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department, according to Lubrant.
Salvaggio said she would also like to consider doing a survey of drug and alcohol use and other risky behaviors. She plans to move slowly and will discuss the issue further among principals.
“We know that we can’t punish kids into good behavior,” Salvaggio said. “It’s about consequences for bad choices and intervention and education to make different choices in the future.”
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette: