Elsewhere on this page of your favorite weekly newspaper is a letter from Platteville School Board member Eric Fatzinger about his vote against changes in the school district’s activities code.
The school board voted to change school district policy on student–athlete eligibility during appeal of a suspension, as well as changing the classification of alcohol offenses. As you read in his letter, Fatzinger agreed with the former and disagreed with the latter, which is why he voted against the policy change, as his letter states.
I disagree with both Fatzinger’s vote and the school board’s vote. (This should not be read as criticism of either the school board generally or Fatzinger personally. As I know from four years serving on a public body and more than two decades covering them, if you take a vote that people disagree with, you should expect criticism, warranted or not.)
I suspect that, as Platteville High School activities director Alan Minter and district superintendent Connie Valenza put it, the school board didn’t have a choice on reconciling the school district’s policy with the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s policy. However, not having a choice doesn’t make the vote the right thing to do.
First, the alcohol policy. Fatzinger argues that alcohol is no different, and should be treated no differently, from any other “narcotic, controlled substance or other mind-altering drug or chemical,” possession, sale or delivery of which constitutes a Level Four offense. He argues that “underage consumption of alcohol is a problem in our community,” rightly pointing to page 3A of last week’s Journal to underline that point.
There is a legal difference, however, between alcohol and those other drugs. Those controlled substances, including even illicit use of prescription drugs, are illegal for anyone. Consumption of alcohol is illegal only for those younger than 21. That suggests the need to teach responsible future use of alcohol.
Since Sept. 1, by my count Platteville police have issued 20 citations for underage drinking. The drinking age has been 21 in the entire lifetimes of those cited for underage drinking. At first blush, all that increasing the drinking age has done is to increase underage drinking. Laws that are widely ignored (or unenforceable) breed disrespect for the law. The 21-year-old drinking age also results in sneaking around to drink and more binge drinking, which not only have more serious medical consequences, but certainly meet no definition of responsible alcohol use.
When I was a high school student, the drinking age was 18. Of course underage drinking took place in my high school, and in the high schools of those who came of age before 1984, when the Legislature increased the drinking age to 19. A couple years later the Legislature moved the drinking age to 21, but not after careful deliberation of the sort that should be expected in a democratic republic. The Legislature changed the drinking age under Reagan Administration threat of losing federal highway funds. (That is the same reason we have mandatory seat belt laws and laws against texting while driving. All those laws should have been debated on their merits, not under federal blackmail.)
Fatzinger is a retired Army colonel. That means that he commanded soldiers who, being younger than 21, were old enough to die for their country, but not old enough to drink in their own country. I have not understood that logic for the more than quarter-century that has been the de facto policy of this country. Every 18-year-old is an adult, allowed to vote, required to serve on juries if summoned, and legally liable for contracts he or she signs.
It seems obvious at this point that we American adults are lousy role models for responsible alcohol consumption. Last week’s Journal also featured stories on two arrests of drivers for 10th- and 11th-offense drunk driving. For those two charged, drunk driving was illegal 10 arrests ago. (The latter driver was arrested for OWI number 11 while out on bond for OWI number 10.) It would appear that the increase in penalties from drunk-driving arrest to arrest, including mandatory ignition interlocks, fails to deter at least some people from (allegedly in their case) driving drunk.
The athletic-suspension-appeal vote is the result of the softball playoff forfeit in June. The WIAA uses tax dollars — which fund facilities, coach salaries and travel to athletic events, along with uniforms and sport supplies in many cases — and yet is completely unaccountable to taxpayers or voters.
Residents of the School District of Platteville vote for people to represent them on the School Board. If the School Board — whose job is to represent the voters of the school district and the interests of students, parents and others in the school district — decided that due process requires student–athletes to remain eligible while they appeal an athletic-code suspension, that is up for the School Board to decide. If the school board decides that student–athletes should be ineligible through the appeals process, that too is up to the School Board to decide. Whether members of the School Board made the right or wrong vote on that or anything else that comes before the School Board is up to voters to decide.
It could be argued that the WIAA’s policy — that student–athletes are ineligible during athletic code suspension appeals — is a case of being guilty until proven innocent. It could be argued too that the WIAA’s policy prevents a suspended student–athlete from gaming the system. Again, though, that policy is a school board decision, in Platteville or anywhere else.
I am not condoning underage drinking. I understand Fatzinger’s view that alcohol should not be treated differently in school district policy from other drugs. I understand that the School Board was between a rock and a hard place on the difference between the school district’s policy and WIAA policy on athletic code suspensions. To quote rock guitarist Dave Mason, we just disagree.