Illicit activity at homecoming dance leads to discussion of discipline policy

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Rock Bridge administrators dealt with student drinking at the homecoming dance.

Katie Whaley

[dropcap style=”simple” size=”5″]P[/dropcap]eople crowded in front of the stage danced and sang along to the song that boomed through the gymnasium. Fairy lights were strung over the dance floor, illuminating the students in a soft, yellow glow.
The picturesque scene was the Oct. 7 RBHS homecoming dance, and though the sight was pretty, there were rumors that inside the crowd some students were participating in illegal activity such as underage drinking and vaping.
“I knew that some people at the dance had been drinking because, in the densely packed crowd near the front I could get the occasional whiff of alcohol on people’s breaths,” senior Alex Geyer said. “However, I did not notice anyone actually possessing or drinking alcohol.”
As a school filled with underage students, RBHS prohibits possession of alcohol on campus, yet instances like what was described of the homecoming dance still can occur, principal Dr. Jennifer Rukstad said. Though consumption of alcohol has been a problem in past years, Rukstad said, the method in handling the situation hasn’t changed.
“Technically we don’t have any school policies but the Columbia Board Education has policies. We [at RBHS] have practices and procedures. So [RBHS] has practices if we suspect someone is under the influence. We’re going to separate [suspects] from the crowd. We are going to contact their parents and we are going to administer consequences,” Dr. Rukstad said. “Oftentimes, we are triaging the situation because of safety and many cases there are students who aren’t safe and we have to address that first.”
In terms of hosting school dances, monitoring students and administering consequences for wrong behaviors, Dr. Rukstad said RBHS does it different than schools outside of Columbia Public Schools (CPS). While RBHS does not conduct breathalyzer tests, Jefferson City High School (JCHS) and Southern Boone High School both do. Not using breathalyzers at school dances, Dr. Rukstad said, is a district decision.
JCHS’ policy states that students using, distributing, possessing or under the influence of drugs, alcohol or any other illegal substances will receive disciplinary action up to and including suspension, expulsion or other discipline in accordance with the district’s discipline policy. Amy Berendzen, member of JCHS Direct School-Community Relations, said this guideline is to keep students safe.
“We administer breathalyzer tests at school dances if we are suspicious if a student is under the influence. What happens after we administer the test is different with each student,” Berendzen said. “If [students] don’t pass, we then go into disciplinary action outlined in the policy above.”
Though RBHS and JCHS don’t handle suspicious activity in the same way, the schools’ administration has similar practices when punishing students.
“Alcohol and drug use both have the same automatic 10 day suspension … If you happen to be receiving a consequence for alcohol or drug use you can choose to only do a five day suspension. In our case, the suspension includes the Alternative Education Center (ACE) and taking five alcohol or drug counseling sessions,” Dr. Rukstad said. “Vaping is a little bit different because cigarettes aren’t really in the same classification by Columbia Public Schools’ definition. We do try to treat it like cigarettes, so they are not allowed on Columbia Public Schools’ property… The idea of vaping is the same as smoking just in a different vessel, so we treat it the same.”
Dr. Rukstad said administration had only dealt with one case of vaping during the homecoming dance, though, she admits, there could have been more instances that administrators were not aware. While at the dance, freshman Tia Rawat said she saw multiple students vaping in the gymnasium and soon after watched a police officer enter the room.
“I definitely saw a group of kids vaping. A few minutes later I saw the police officer running out of the gym, so I guess she was going after them,” Rawat said. “The group of kids were in the middle of the gym, and you could see smoke in the air, so it was kind of obvious.”
As of now, Dr. Rukstad said there will still be a courtwarming dance and the same policy will apply if a similar instance occurs. Her message for students is to learn from this event and to be aware of the choices they make.
“We’re aware [teenage drinking] is a problem, but we’re also very interested in how to change a cultural mindset that when a school has a big event that is an occasion to involve drinking before, during or after [the event],” Dr. Rukstad said. “There’s a problem in each of those situations and we will respond in order to keep students safe.”
Additional reporting by Saly Seye