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SD panel votes to ease student drug suspensions

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By Chet Brokaw

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PIERRE (AP) — A plan that would cut the amount of time some students caught with drugs are suspended from sports and other school activities was endorsed Tuesday by a South Dakota legislative panel after supporters said the measure also would improve the fairness of the suspension system.

Baltic School Superintendent Bob Sittig, who proposed the change, said the current law drives students out of activities. Studies show that students who take part in school activities get better grades and have less trouble with the law, he said.

"We want students to have consequences for their actions and we don't want to be soft on crime or anything like that, or send a message that doing drugs is OK. But we want to keep them in activities," Sittig told lawmakers.

Current law requires that students convicted for a first drug offense be suspended from school activities for one year, but the suspension can be cut to 60 school days if they get counseling or treatment. Repeat offenders lose eligibility permanently.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to approve a bill that would cut the suspension for a first offense to 30 calendar days if a student gets an assessment and completes any treatment required by that assessment.

Students caught a second time would be kicked out of activities for one year, but that could be cut to 60 calendar days if they get treatment. Anyone convicted of a drug offense for a third time would be banned from activities permanently.

The bill's main sponsor, Sen. Tim Rave, R-Baltic, said a key part of the measure would require students convicted of a first drug offense to miss at least two events before taking part again in sports, debate, band and other activities. Those caught a second time would have to miss at least six events.

Rave said the requirement that students miss actual events would help prevent students from unfairly manipulating the system. A student now might delay a court appearance until he has played an entire football season and then serve a suspension, Rave said.

"It's a fairness issue," he said.

The measure would require students suspended for drug offenses to sit out of games, concerts or other events associated with activities in which they actually participate, Rave said. Students might try to take up activities they normally wouldn't so their suspensions are completed by the time their favored activities start, but they still would have to take part in practices while sitting out, he said.

Sittig said the current law drives students out of beneficial activities by declaring them permanently ineligible after a second drug offense. He said waiting until a third offense to permanently ban a student from activities, which the bill proposes, seems like the better way to go.

"I think if a student has a third offense, they've got bigger issues they need to handle other than participating in activities," Sittig said.

Sen. Deb Soholt, R-Sioux Falls, said students caught with drugs should be encouraged to get back into activities. If students are banned from school activities, they may be more likely to use drugs when they have nothing else to do, she said.

Rave said school districts can impose harsher penalties than state law provides. The state law deals with drug offenses, but local school districts suspend students from activities for using tobacco or alcohol, he said.

The law kicking students who commit drug offenses out of school activities was passed in the 1990s. It was last changed in 2006, when the Legislature overrode a veto by then-Gov. Mike Rounds who was trying to keep the suspension for first offenders receiving counseling or treatment from being reduced to 60 days.

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