Monday, July 2, 2012

"Constructive Possesion" Policy Not Good for Schools

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on July 2, 2012

By Bill Gouveia

“Constructive possession” is a term that should be used in reference to courtrooms and criminals rather than classrooms and students. But in Mansfield, the school committee has made these stern-sounding words part of the town’s educational policy with regard to student athletes. That is unfortunate, unwise, and unfair.

For those unfamiliar with the term, constructive possession refers to the general idea that those present in a place where there are illegal substances can be held responsible whether they used those substances or not. In Mansfield’s situation it means student athletes who are said in a police report to have been at parties where drugs or alcohol were being used are subject to punishment, even if there is no evidence they actually knew about or used the illegal substances themselves.

The policy applies only to those students participating in athletics. If found in violation student athletes may have their eligibility to play interscholastic sports limited or eliminated. “What we’re looking to do is to stop our students from going to illegal underage drinking parties, period,” MHS assistant principal Dawn Stockwell said recently. “We feel as though it is a dangerous situation and we do not want our students partaking in these events.”

That is certainly an admirable goal, and one no doubt shared by everyone. Underage drinking and illegal drug use are major problems in our society. But they are not limited to those youngsters participating in organized athletics. In fact, that group may not exhibit any more of that behavior than the rest of the student body. The very idea of increasing the opportunity to punish one particular class of student in this manner goes against what should be the very core of the educational philosophy of the Mansfield school system.

This new policy is allegedly designed to be a deterrent and help keep student athletes out of trouble. But it appears to be more about looking tough, punishing the athletes, and making the job of adjudication in these matters easier on administrators and other personnel. It sounds nice in theory, but the practical application of this misguided measure undermines the principle of personal responsibility schools should be reinforcing.

Everyone agrees kids should avoid parties where they know drugs and alcohol are present and being used. But taking the opportunity to specifically increase the chance of punishment for those who choose to play sports just doesn’t make any sense. Most parents try and get their children involved in high school sports to help keep them busy and occupy their spare time. This helps eliminate the idleness that can often lead to experimentation with illegal substances.

So why would you specifically target these student athletes? Punishing them in this manner for nothing more than being in the vicinity seems a bit counter-productive. And taking away an activity which may well be helping discourage them from participating in the illegal parties that worry us all – when there is no proof they actually did anything illegal – also seems to run counter to the concept of protecting them.

No one is saying kids should not be punished for being at a party where illegal activity is taking place. But that punishment should come from their parents/ guardians or the police, not the school administration. Athletes should not be held to a different standard of this type. Sure, you agree to a code of conduct when you sign on to a team. But why athletes, and not students who participate in other activities such as band or the math club?

Punishing student athletes for merely being near other kids drinking illegally may initially sound like a good idea, but it truly is not. One school official noted that fully processing the names of who participated in these parties can put a strain on administrative and staff resources. That is understandable, but deciding to punish any athlete who may have been present is not the way to relieve staff of that burden.

Mansfield school committee members would better serve their students and their community by repealing this unfair policy. Tougher punishments for athletes won’t solve the problem of teenage parties. That can only be done by educating students on the dangers, and involving their parents in the process.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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