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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.

Marty Quon, whose eighth-grade daughter Amanda also admitted to sipping from the can and was sent home for five days, said he was shocked when he, too, learned his daughter would lose still more time in the classroom.

"I kept hearing 'zero tolerance.' So the feeling I got was they just had to do this," Quon said.

"How is that good for them?" he said of the extended time out of school.

Quon and other parents said they would have supported making their children participate in a drug and alcohol lecture series or write a paper — something that would make their children learn from the incident.

California education code prohibits suspensions longer than five consecutive days and does not allow students to be suspended for more than 20 school days in an academic year.

LaMarre said no suspensions were longer than five days. The families say their exile was labeled "independent study," but their children were essentially suspended for 22 days.

Unlike in true independent study, the students were barred from coming to campus during school hours and prevented from taking part in any campus activities, they said.

On Nov. 12, Reilly Austin and Amanda Quon tested the notion of whether they were truly on voluntary independent study and tried to return to school. They were still in the Quons' car in front of the Bloomfield Road campus when a phone call from an intermediary alerted them they would not be allowed inside, according to Stacia Austin.

"It kind of proved in my mind that it was a suspension and not independent study," she said.

Districts do not collect crucial per-pupil funding from the state while a student is suspended. They do receive those funds when students are on independent study.

Quon, who described his daughter as a strong student and flutist in the Hillcrest marching band, is considering legal action.

Hillcrest Principal David Fichera declined to comment on the incident or the punishment, citing student confidentiality.

Gravenstein School Board President Sandra Wickland said she was prohibited from speaking about any specific student's case and declined to discuss district policy. She directed inquiries to Superintendent Linda LaMarre.

"Every case is handled depending on the facts, and the superintendent is in charge of that," Wickland said.

LaMarre, who also serves as principal at Gravenstein Elementary School, spoke briefly about district policy but then ended the interview and did not return repeated phone calls.

"Our policy is on our website," she said.

"The board supports a zero tolerance approach to serious offenses in accordance with state and federal law," the policy reads. "This approach makes the removal of potentially dangerous students from the classroom a top priority and ensures the standardized treatment of all students."

Students using alcohol may be subject to suspension or expulsion and "may be referred to an appropriate counseling program, transferred to an alternative placement, and/or be restricted from extracurricular activities," according to district policy.

The lengthy policy goes on to say "The Superintendent or principal may use his/her discretion to provide alternatives to suspension or expulsion for a student subject to discipline under this administrative regulation, including but not limited to counseling and an anger management program."

An extension of suspension can occur only if the superintendent or designee determines "the student's presence at the school .<TH>.<TH>. would endanger persons or property or threaten to disrupt the instructional process."

LaMarre countered claims any suspension was more than five days and said that independent study "can only be done with parents' permission or request."

But while students in independent study "shall have access to the same services and resources as is available to other students in the school," parents contend their repeated attempts to get their children re-admitted to class were fruitless. In addition, students were required to pick up school work after the final bell, were barred from attending a Halloween dance and prevented from trying out for the school play, "Seussical, the Musical."

District policy also states that "no student shall be required to participate in independent study," but Stacia Austin said her family was given no choice at all: She either signed off on independent study or agreed to have her daughter proceed toward an expulsion hearing.

Other parents were faced with the same dilemma. The children suffered both academically and emotionally during the exile, they said.

"I'm all for my child dealing with the consequences of his actions — they can be harsh, that's fine," said a mother of an eighth-grade boy who admitted to taking a drink from the Pepsi can. She asked that her name not be used. "Give my child detention at lunch or don't give him recess. He needs to be at school. He didn't need to be excluded. He definitely fell behind."

Reilly Austin and at least two of her classmates were out of school from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18.

On Nov. 4, about midway through Reilly Austin's time out of school and after her parents hired an educational advocate to help them find a way to get Reilly back into class and the suspension removed from her record, the Austins were presented with a deal from the district.

Reilly would be allowed to return to class if her parents agreed to withdraw their challenge of the suspension, their request for compensation for their advocate's fees and their request for an apology from Fichera. Also included in the deal was the district's demand that the Austins withdraw their claim that the independent study was involuntary or signed under duress.

They did not sign.

"We were flabbergasted," Stacia Austin said. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe what I'm hearing. I said, 'I can't sign that. I don't feel comfortable.'

"We wanted her back (in school) so bad," she said. "We would have done just about anything to get her back in school, but you give up all of your rights, you give up your children's rights, too."

Reilly Austin didn't want to sign the document either.

"I did want to go back to school but I didn't want to give up the fight. I didn't want to back down. I didn't want them to think they could just do that," she said. "It would all be over, but I would be too weak to stand up for what I thought."

On Nov. 18, Reilly and her classmates returned to school.

It has taken some time to get grades back on track and their parents say the students are less trusting of authority today.

Stacia Austin said the incident has opened her eyes to the misuse of the concept of zero tolerance.

"It's affecting real people, real kids in Sonoma County," she said. "Kids are being lost because of policy."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.