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Zero tolerance makes zero sense: Teen punished for helping drunk friend

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 3:13 PM EST, Wed December 4, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Erin Cox went to a party to pick up a friend who was too drunk to drive, according to reports
  • Cox's school charged she violated its zero-tolerance policy against drug and alcohol use
  • Cox was demoted as captain of the volleyball team and suspended for five games
  • Reaction online has been fierce, with most expressing outrage at school's decision

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- When I hear about an outrageous story involving kids -- and we know there is another crazy one just about every day -- I often try to put myself in the shoes of the parents at the center of the controversy. How would I have acted? What would I have wanted my daughters to do?

In the case of a teen recently punished by her school for trying to drive a drunk friend home, I find myself firmly siding with the girl and her parents -- and wondering what on Earth the school administrators were thinking.

Two weeks ago, Erin Cox, an honors high school student who lives near Boston, got a call from a friend at a party who was too drunk to drive. Cox went to the party to get her friend, and shortly after she got there, police arrived and arrested a dozen kids for underage drinking, warning 15 others, including Cox, they would get a summons for drinking, according to the Boston Herald.

Even though Cox wasn't drinking and a police officer vouched for her sobriety in a written statement, according to the Herald, her school, North Andover High, charged that she violated its zero-tolerance policy when it comes to alcohol and drug use.

Her punishment? She was demoted from her position as captain of her volleyball team and told she would be suspended for five games.

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All because she did the right thing, as far as this reporter mom is concerned. I would hope my girls, now in elementary school, would do what Cox did if they ever found themselves in a similar situation.

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"She did what we teach our kids to do!! Friends don't let friends drive drunk!" wrote Stevie Street, one of the thousands of commenters on CNN's Facebook page expressing outrage and disappointment at the school's decision.

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For some, the issue is very personal.

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"My daughter was killed at age 17 riding in a car with a drunk driver. How I wish she would have called us or asked a sober friend to drive her home. The girl should be rewarded, not punished, for potentially saving a life," Karen Donahue Moses said, also on Facebook.

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"I know someone ... who was raped at a party after passing out drunk. Her friends had left without her," a commenter named David wrote in an e-mail. "Looking out for your friends, making sure they get home safe, that's the responsible thing to do. If that student had just left her friend there, she could have been assaulted, she could have driven drunk or ridden with a drunk driver."

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Cox's family filed a lawsuit to force the school to reverse its decision, but a judge ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction over the school's decision, according to reports.

Now, she and her family plan to file formal legal action against the school district "in the hope that officials there will think twice before imposing sanctions on any student whose only offense involves trying to prevent yet another drunk-driving tragedy," Wendy Murphy, Cox's attorney, said in a statement.

"(Erin) wants to really raise awareness of the issue to the point where people understand it's much better to encourage kids to help each other and that by pursing additional legal action, she hopes that her school and other schools will understand why it's so important for young people to watch out for each other," Murphy said.

Repeated calls and e-mails to the school, the school district and the school's lawyer have not been returned. In a comment to the Herald, Geoffrey Bok, who represented the high school in court, said the school had basically no choice once the police got involved.

"The school is really trying to take a very serious and principled stand regarding alcohol," he said. "And we all get that. Teen drinking is a serious problem."

Kendra Vinson Sales, in an e-mail and on her blog, said that Cox should be "the example of what to do when you need a ride home from a party."

"Instead, now students at this school are filled with mixed signals and contradictory messages," wrote Vinson Sales. "From now on, students will think twice about calling a friend for help or worse, they may not reach out to help a friend in a similar situation."

CDC: Teen drinking and driving rates cut in half

Although 95% of the comments we've received via e-mail or on Facebook were wildly critical of the school for its decision, there were a few voices of support online.

"While I am not a fan of zero tolerance policies, zero means zero. If you are going to put the policy in place, you must enforce it," Jill Worden Benjamin wrote on CNN's Facebook page.

"She wasn't punished for driving a friend home. Why do people keep saying that? She was actually punished for being in a place (where) alcohol was served," Nancy Taylor said, also on Facebook. "I'm sure she is well aware of the school's policy. She chose to violate that policy."

"Just because she was an honors student and the captain of the volleyball team shouldn't give her a free pass to disregard the school's known zero tolerance policy," Elyse Bruce said on CNN Living's Facebook page. "To let her off the hook is to discriminate against those who are not honors students or captains of sports teams who take the school police seriously and abide by it."

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"This is the second time in a week CNN has gauged levels of national outrage over a ridiculous K-12 school policy applied in a ridiculous manner," Adam of Alexandria, Virginia, wrote in an e-mail.

He was referring to last week's story, which we covered on CNN Parents, about a school banning the use of most balls during recess and even requiring supervision of rough games of tag while the schoolyard space is restricted due to a construction project.

Adam said these stories reflect a failure of common sense in education.

"Let's hope North Andover High's administrators pick humility over hubris, amend their anti-alcohol policy to prevent such unintended consequences, pardon the student caught up in their mistake, publicly apologize and move on," he added.

"Then let's hope the school district responsible for next week's episode of '(Administrators) Gone Wild' does the same."

What do you think of the school's decision? Tell us below in the comments.

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

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