Sober Honor Student Punished for Driving Drunk Friend Home

Jonathan Bernstein crisis communications, crisis management, Crisis Prevention, crisis public relations, Crisis Response, Erik Bernstein, Jonathan Bernstein, PR, public relations, reputation management, school crisis management Leave a Comment

Blindly following policy is asking for a crisis management mishap

We’ve discussed before how a refusal, or inability, to flex your policies in special circumstances can create crisis management issues for organizations, and now yet another example has reared its head, this time in Massachusetts.

17-year-old Erin Cox, honor student and captain of North Andover High School’s volleyball team, had just gotten off work when a friend texted her to ask for a ride home from a party. The friend was drunk, and Erin, not wanting her friend to risk driving, or climbing in the car with another intoxicated party goer, headed over to retrieve her.

The Boston Herald’s Margery Eagan explains what happened next:

Erin drove to a home on Main Street in Boxford and worked her way through a wild scene of partying teens until she finally found that friend — just as police from Boxford, Haverhill, Georgetown and North Andover showed up. They arrested a dozen underage drinkers and warned another 15 underage youths that they’d be summoned to court for drinking.

Erin Cox was one of those told she’d be summoned for drinking — even though she wasn’t, even though Boxford police Officer Brian Neeley vouched for her sobriety in writing in a statement Erin’s mother, Eleanor, took to court Friday. She filed a lawsuit hoping to reverse the high school’s punishment: Erin was stripped of her captain’s position and suspended, mid-season, for five games.

Erin Cox understood all this, as well.

“But I wasn’t drinking,” she told me. “And I felt like going to get her was the right thing to do. Saving her from getting in the car when she was intoxicated and hurt herself or getting in the car with someone else who was drinking. I’d give her a ride home.”

Now, North Andover has a zero tolerance policy for underage drinking, and student athletes are told they will be suspended if they even attend a party where underage drinking is occurring, but if there’s any situation that warrants an exception don’t you think it would be this one?

The school is refusing to speak to reporters or issue a statement, but Geoffery Bok, attorney for the district, told the Herald that the school “had” to act when police got involved.

Really? You, the people who make the rules, “had” to take action against a young girl who was quite clearly trying to do the right thing? Well no, you didn’t, because (prepare to have your mind blown) YOU MAKE THE RULES!

North Andover is taking a serious beating in traditional and social media right now, and for good reason, but it’s actually also sitting on an opportunity to take the truckful of lemons being dumped on its lawn and make some lemonade.

What if the school admitted its zero tolerance policy needs a little revision, that there are these things in life called “extenuating circumstances” which sometimes make it necessary to bend a rule? What if the school invited Cox, her mother, and maybe the police officer who took the time to vouch for Erin’s sobriety, and invited them all to assist in re-writing that policy to better fit how the world really works?

Suddenly, the school looks a whole lot better, the young girl isn’t punished for being one of the few teens who refuses to let friends drink and drive, and a new, less rigid, more realistic (and likely as a result, more effective) policy is in place, a set of outcomes that should please both sides equally.

We have no way of knowing if the school is cooking up some sort of crisis management plan, but if it doesn’t look a whole lot like what we’ve proposed then they’re probably in trouble. For those of you at home, stay flexible, and if you find yourself blindly enforcing policy simply because it’s policy, please, please stop and think about the situation first.

The BCM Blogging Team

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