School officials stand behind suspension policy

By William Thompson

The father of a Tucumcari High School student-athlete said last week he wants school officials to change their suspension policy for drug and alcohol violations. Ben White believes the season-long suspension for first-time offenders is too harsh.

But school officials said they continue to support the policy that’s been in effect since the early 1990s.

“Our athletes are good kids, but we have a few who break the rules,” said THS Principal Gary Salazar. “We are not here to crucify these kids, but we have to follow our policy.

“Some schools around the state have harsher policies in place and some schools are more lenient. I know there are schools that have year-long suspensions from all sports for student-athletes who violate drug and alcohol policies. We can’t afford to soften our stance against the use of drugs and alcohol.”

Superintendent William Reents said 20 to 30 Tucumcari students have been suspended for drug or alcohol violations in the past three years. He said eight or nine students have been suspended from this school year and not all those suspended are athletes. He said all extra-curricular activities fall under the policy.

Reents said drug and alcohol abuse by teenagers is a community problem, not just a school problem. He said he stands behind Salazar’s enforcement of the suspension policy.

“State government expects zero tolerance when it comes to drug or alcohol use by underage individuals,” Reents said. “We’re just trying to support that social policy.”
White said he wants to meet with Tucumcari school officials.

“I think the policy needs to be changed,” White said. “An athlete shouldn’t receive the ‘death-penalty’ punishment for the first offense.”

Salazar said parents are entitled to a hearing before Athletic Director Wayne Ferguson, Reents and Salazar. Reents added that a decision made at the hearing is basically a final decision.

“Technically, the parents could appeal to the school board, but that has never happened in my experience,” Reents said.

“Students sign agreements prior to the beginning of the season saying they agree to our policy. Parents and students have already had a chance to appeal the policy.”
Salazar said some people argue suspended student-athletes would be better off playing sports than having more time to possibly get into trouble.

“The trouble with that argument is the student was already involved in his or her sport,” Salazar said. “Athletics did not prevent that student from using drugs or alcohol.”
Newly elected Tucumcari school board member Doug Powers said the suspension policy bears further review.

“These are just kids,” Powers said. “We have excellent counselors at our schools; maybe we could look more at counseling and treatment rather than harsh punishment. I’d like to meet with our superintendent and principals and utilize their expertise and experience before I can make any decision on this issue.”

Tucumcari High School basketball coach John Span said he must support his school’s suspension policy but he feels the New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) could initiate a uniform standard for all schools.

Gary Tripp, executive director of the NMAA, said his organization does not have the authority to mandate suspension policy.

“The state statutes require that each school district decide those policies,” Tripp said.