Expulsions Spotlight HHS Student Drug Use

Expulsions Spotlight HHS Student Drug Use

A dramatic rise in marijuana-related incidents this year has Herndon High looking for answers.

With her hands shaking and her voice trembling, there is no mistaking that Jan Leslie is upset. Sitting behind her desk at Herndon High School, Leslie, the school's usually upbeat principal, is admittedly disappointed at the wave of drug-related expulsion hearings, 12 in all, to hit the Bennett Street campus this semester.

Leslie has seen firsthand what drugs can do to a school. She was an assistant principal at Robinson High School when a student was murdered over a drug deal gone bad. "I've seen it at other schools and I've seen it lead to real tragedy," she said. "I hate to think that something terrible like that could happen here, but I worry."

Leslie is worried because, with nearly three weeks to go in the semester, the Herndon principal has already expelled 12 students from her student body of more than 2,300. "I didn't even have a total of a dozen of these expulsion hearings all last year," Leslie said, shaking her head. "It's a definite spike and, of course, it disturbs me."

In addition to the long list of expulsion hearings so far this year, Leslie said there have been 15 to 20 other cases, mostly alcohol related, where disciplinary action was not warranted but intervention and treatment were recommended. "First and foremost," she said, "we want to get these kids on the road to recovery."

<b>IN A NOV. 22</b> e-mail, Lisa Lombardozzi, the Herndon High PTSA president, pleaded with fellow Hornet parents to talk to their children to help break, what she called, "this horrible cycle."

Lombardozzi's letter came at the end of one especially difficult week that saw five Herndon students recommended for expulsion.

Fairfax County's strict zero-tolerance policy mandates that school's expel any student caught on or near school property or at a school-sponsored event with illegal substances. "If a youngster is in possession or is selling or distributing on campus, that is illegal and the rules are clear," said Jane K. Strauss, school board member (Dranesville). "They will not be going back to their neighborhood school. The SROs [School Resource Officers] will then bring charges forward and they will be in trouble with the school and the law."

Leslie said each individual case is "emotionally draining." "Believe me, these [expulsion hearings] are the last thing we want to do," she said. "None of us come to work and say, 'Oh goodie, how many kids can we expel today?'"

John Werner, the 11th grade assistant principal and the school's unofficial "drug czar," said he dreads each hearing. "I haven't been to one expulsion hearing this year where someone hasn't cried whether it is a student or a parent. It's not fun, but the zero-tolerance policy pretty much ties our hands."

<b>HERNDON JUNIOR </b>Lauren MacDougall said, while the zero-tolerance policy is harsh, it is fair. Like many of her classmates, MacDougall is well aware of the recent flood of expulsions. "It's too bad, but they knew what they were doing," she said. "They thought they could get away with it, but they got careless."

Tracey McKoy has sent two children through Herndon High and has a freshman girl there now. "I think the important thing is that the kids are held accountable for their actions," she said, while waiting to pick-up her daughter after school Monday. "A lot of times, they think they can do anything and they will get away with it. So I am glad to see the school working to keep the environment clean and safe for the rest of the kids."

Werner said the students have been more brazen and careless this year. "We are not doing anything differently. We haven't lined the halls with cops," he said. "We are just stumbling upon these incidents and we can't turn our backs on it. They are forcing our hand."

And while Leslie tries to ride out the storm of expulsions, she says she fears there are more to come. The principal told her staff Monday morning to prepare for more possible incidents in January, after the winter holiday. Over the years, Leslie said she has had countless conversations with parents whose children were busted with drugs shortly after returning to school in January. "They ask their child where they got the money," she said, "And they say, 'It's the money grandma gave me for Christmas.'"

<b>LOMBARDOZZI, WHO </b>has three school-aged children of her own, said parents should be aware that the students getting caught are not the prototypical "bad kids."

"Many of these kids that have been expelled are not the ones that you would expect," she said Monday. "These aren't the ones who are always getting in trouble or who are shuffling in and out of different Fairfax County schools. These are kids who have never gotten into trouble and have never been caught for anything before. Parents need to know this because this could be their own kids."

Leslie agreed, included in the dozen recommended expulsions have been "A students" and athletes, she said. And according to students interviewed, the expulsions have even touched at least one member of the highly-touted Herndon Marching Band.

"I mean, we are talking about a few kids who were probably headed to the Ivy League," Leslie said. "Now, I don't know if they will get there."

Kevin Geiger, of Reston, is a junior at Herndon High School and he has seen many "well-rounded" students turn to drugs and alcohol. "Parents are fooling themselves if they think the smart kids aren't using marijuana," the 16-year-old said, while working at his Boy Scout-sponsored Christmas tree lot on Elden Street. "A good portion of the expulsions were high achievers. They are always doing what is expected and they are always working very hard. This is their chance to relax and to rebel."

Herndon High's first-year school resource officer echoed Geiger's comments. "I've talked with a lot of parents who are in denial. There are a lot more out there that are using, but we just haven't caught them," the SRO said. "It's everybody, I don't care if they are high class or low class."

Geiger's twin brother, Mike, said he knows many of his classmates do drugs. "It's everywhere. I have plenty of friends that use and deal," he said. "I'm not surprised that they use, but I was surprised at how careless they were. It's one thing to do drugs, it's another to bring them to school or smoke in the parking lot. It's just been a lot people being very stupid and getting caught."

Leslie said that sometimes, though not always, high-achieving students who use drugs will typically see a corresponding dip in academic performance. "As the drug use goes up, the grades go down," she said. "You can see it, clear as a bell."

"For me, it is depressing, because I see kids with everything to gain and they are potentially throwing it all away," Leslie said. "No, I don't think their lives are over from something they did at 17, but they sure have complicated their lives and they have definitely cut off some opportunities and limited many of their options."

<b>THE PROBLEM</b> is not unique to Herndon High, Leslie said, but she added that she was not going to hide from the fact that her school has seen a sizable jump in drug-related incidents. Leslie said the problem is countywide, but especially prevalent in the wealthy suburbs, like Herndon and Reston, on the western edge of Fairfax County. "You will see the same things happening at Westfield and Centreville that is happening here," she said. "We are talking about affluent kids with cars, cell phones and kids whose parents probably are working longer hours and they have a lot of time to themselves."

Werner said, 70 percent of last year's marijuana-related expulsions in Fairfax County were committed by whites. "Marijuana is expensive," he said. "It's a major expense and it requires money and access."

Leslie said she has warned her teachers about the problem and she wants them to know that it is on the upswing. "We have put them on notice to be vigilant," she said. "But more than anything, we need to remind our students and our children that their lives and their futures are worth more to them than they realize."

Assistant principal Werner said parents should keep a look out for warning signs, like a sudden dip in grades. Werner said that changes in grades, dress and friends can also signal problems.

Leslie and Werner implored parents to take a more active role in their child's life. "You've got to get in their cars," Werner said. "You've got to get in their rooms."

Leslie said she understands that parents are reticent to infringe on their children's privacy, but she said no parent can be absolutely sure that their child is clean.

"I sat across from these kids this year and if I was their mother, it wouldn't have occurred to me to look through their drawers. They seemed like such good, straight kids," Leslie said. "Please, look in their cars, in the consoles, in the glove compartment."

Werner also urged parents to check their child's cell phone bill each month. "See who they are calling," he said. "It's not snooping, it's parenting. Parents really are the No. 1 anti-drug."

Werner said parents cannot simply have, what he called, "the talk."

"It has to be an ongoing conversation with your kid," he said. "They must have an open dialogue. If they haven't begun a conversation, they should do so right now."