My kids are out in the world but the graduation parties keep coming. I attended my first of the 2024 season on Mother’s Day — over to Jean Street in Lewiston (well done, Maddy!) — and it surely won’t be the last such engagement this spring. And yet, without kids in a school system, one is not so well informed. Public schools provide that cohesion to a community, on so many levels. Without that sort of social contact, for example, I don’t even know what Lewiston-Auburn teams have a chance to make noise in the state tournament.

There’s another rite of spring about which empty nesters like myself, in our dotage, hear nothing: the suspension of high school kids from postseason games and other school functions because they were caught drinking or smoking pot at some prom party. These days, they are rarely caught red-handed. Rather, they are caught red-cup-in-hand, the digital image of which is invariably shared on social media. Sometimes, all it takes is a picture with an empty beer bottle visible somewhere in the picture.

Either way, one doesn’t read about this stuff in the newspaper, which is probably a good thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not quietly taking place all around us. It happened when my kids were in high school, 10 years ago, and it’s happening today.

I live in Auburn, so I confirmed my understanding of the policies now in place there with Todd Sampson, the athletic director at Edward Little High School, and his colleague William Buzza, head of the Arts Department. The first thing to know: Today, in Maine, every district makes its own policy with regard to these issues. On this side of the Androscoggin, any boy or girl who wants to compete in a varsity sport, participate in a dramatic production or play in the band must sign an extracurricular eligibility document agreeing to abstain from underage substance use. For years, only athletes were obliged to sign these so-called “pledges.” In 2024, everyone does.

There’s even a” knowingly present” clause designed to discourage students from even attending potentially compromising shindigs.

“That clause has been there for a while and it can open up another can of worms,” Sampson explained to me. “Kids will say, ‘There were no other cups there!’ or ‘I was there, but I was the responsible one — the designated driver!’ It can be a sticky wicket.”

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Let me just say, up front, that here is yet another example of how incredibly valuable teachers and administrators remain: to our students, to our school cultures, to communities at large. No one goes into education in order to dream up and enforce strictures like these. We could detail dozens of similarly sticky wickets these folks are obligated to handle, every day, on the community’s behalf.

However, let me also say that I think such zero-tolerance policies are broadly misplaced. It’s my opinion that any such behaviors, which take place outside of school and off school grounds, should generally not have any such consequences when it comes to school-sponsored activities and privileges. Here again, we are leaning too heavily on educational staff; we are essentially outsourcing the job of parents (and law enforcement, to a certain extent) to the schools.

Let me reiterate that this is my own view — one that, last I checked, was not shared even within the confines of my own home…

Even so, we recognize that drinking alcohol or smoking dope while underage remains some manner of “crime” or misdemeanor. The same could be said of civil-rights violations, or moving violations on our roadways. Kids don’t get suspended from the soccer team because they got caught speeding. The idea that something like that should not affect extracurricular participation, while drinking beers in the woods does? Not logical. What’s more, from administrative and enforcement perspectives, it’s not ethical or practical for members of any high school staff to be scanning Facebook or consulting DMV records to ferret out (or confirm) this sort of information.

Yet I’m also here to report that the policies now in place, at Edward Little at least, are a whole lot more fair than they were 30 years ago when I covered high school sports — or 10 years ago, when my kids were educated in a nearby school district that shall remain nameless. We can also thank our lucky stars that local control rules the day. There’s no way a state education apparatus, or an organization like the the Maine Principals Association, could sensibly issue statewide directives about how many games a kid can’t play, or how many performances he or she must miss — according to photographic evidence sourced on Instagram.

In short, the rules in Auburn were shaped in Auburn, and they rightly apply to everyone: athletes, drama kids and band folk.

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I’m not just a parent of high school/college graduates; I remain a recovering sportswriter who has watched the evolution of these pledges over the course of decades. Once they gained popularity in the 1990s, athletes bore what I believed to be an undue burden. They were more or less required to sign on the dotted line in order to play basketball or lacrosse, while drama kids, band folk and members of the math team were not so required. That struck me as mighty unfair.

At Edward Little, everyone signs. According to Sampson and Buzza, the district bundles into these “agreements” additional requirements relating to attendance, and minimum grade levels. Is that ethically defensible? I’m prepared to debate that; to me, it feels coercive. But it’s an undeniably practical, equitable approach, as it doesn’t single out one extracurricular activity while another evades scrutiny.

“We’ve always had eligibility policy and I’ve been here 31 years,” Buzza told me. “We always review it: to be sure we’re in tune with the times. For play productions, I have the kids sign for all these reasons discussed but also so everyone’s clear about committing to the schedule, to all the time it will require… In most all cases, the kids who become involved are serious about what they’re doing. They know the consequences and they’re mindful of them.”

Hal Phillips of Auburn has been a working journalist since 1986, and managing director of Mandarin Media, Inc. since 1997. His first book, Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America, was published in 2022. Rowman & Littlefield will publish his next effort in 2026. He can be reached at onintwo@maine.rr.com.

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