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Sonoma County parents fight back after alcohol sip leads to students' 22-day suspension

Three Sonoma County eighth-grade students who admitted they took a sip from a Pepsi can containing alcohol were barred from campus for more than a month, prompting their parents to say the district's zero tolerance policy has run amok.

The case, which resulted in long-term penalties for at least three students at Hillcrest Middle School in Sebastopol, has one family considering legal action. Others say the incident calls into question district policies and decisions that prevented students from attending class for 22 consecutive school days last fall.

"Zero tolerance is not effective," said Stacia Austin, mother of 14-year-old Reilly Austin, who admitted to taking a sip from a soda can that was later determined by school officials to contain alcohol Reilly described as whiskey.

Reilly Austin, an honor roll student who performed in the school play and captains the school's award-winning marching band flag team, said she thought her classmate was joking at lunch on Oct. 15 when he said there was alcohol in the soda can. She took a sip, knew it was whiskey and handed it back, she said.

She did not tell a school official what had happened until questioned the next day by Principal David Fichera. She was asked to sign a "declaration of witness" statement that reiterated her belief the boy was joking before she took a sip.

"That was a mistake," she said of not coming forward earlier. "I was scared that I was going to get in trouble and everybody else was going to get in trouble because of me. I didn't want to be the reason everybody got in trouble."

The families of two other eighth-graders who were disciplined in the same incident gave similar accounts of what happened and how the students were dealt with.

On Oct. 16, Reilly Austin and those two classmates were notified that a five-day suspension had been authorized and it would start immediately. It was unclear what punishment the boy who brought the alcohol to school received, but he was back in school near the date that the three other students returned, according to Stacia Austin.

On Oct. 22, Reilly Austin and her parents met with Fichera and Gravenstein Superintendent Linda LaMarre in a conference the Austins believed would pave the way for their daughter's return to class the next morning. Reilly Austin brought with her an essay she wrote about her regret.

Instead, the Austins were presented with a letter that outlined two options going forward: Accept an extended suspension and eventual expulsion hearing with the Gravenstein School District Board of Education, or participate in an independent study program at home, with a return-to-school date of Nov. 18.

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