When writing about stories like that of Erin Cox, the 17 year-old honor student relieved of her role as captain of the North Andover High School volleyball team and suspended for five games because she tried to give a ride home to a drunk friend and stumbled into a police raid of the party from which the friend called her, it’s always possible to miss something.  I don’t have all of the facts; I wasn’t there, and don’t have the police reports.

I certainly know how wrong the media can get things, not only because they favor certain narratives, but because they are often less then competent and all too willing not to check stories that are “too good to check.”  And of course, when one is dealing with teenagers, it’s always wise to be cautious, as most kids will sometimes be less than careful with the truth.

That’s why I normally wait awhile when what appears to be an outrageous story breaks.  It’s best to let things settle and differing views come to the surface.  At the same time, because of my police experience, and my experience as a teacher, I have a pretty good feel for things.  My “cop sense” is still pretty accurate, not perfect, but accurate.  Thus far, the Erin Cox case “feels” right.  All of the information I’ve been able to find–and I always search more thoroughly than making a quick Google search–indicates that she was not drinking, that she was trying to do a good deed, and that school authorities badly over-reacted.

Consider, however, commenter “justmytwocents,” who in response to my original article, wrote: 

I’m not so sure she’s telling the truth.

the word around North Andover high is that Erin was at the party for 3 hours before the police came. There is supposedly video of her vomiting in a bucket 30 minutes before police arrived. She could have told her Mom a little lie to keep out of trouble. Her Mom could have repeated the lie to the school, a lawyer and the media. I guess we’ll hear what actually happened soon enough.
I’m not so sure she’s telling the truth.

“Justtwocents”–I’ve no idea what connection they have to anyone involved–also included what appear to be screenshots of what look like Facebook comments, a few of which are supportive of justtwocent’s claim, and which were apparently written by teenagers that may or may not have been at the party in question.  In any case, they’re not placing themselves there, but their words suggest they attend North Andover High School.  Interested readers should follow the link trail to my original article, the comments, etc.

And we now have Bryan McGonigle, editor of northandoverpatch.com, which is apparently a local blog/news source.  McGonigle writes: 

Cox was summonsed for being at the party, but Boxford Police have confirmed that she was not drunk.

Murphy provided Patch with an email statement written by Boxford Police Officer Brian Neeley, who was on the scene at that party, to North Andover Assistant Superintendent Greg Gilligan last week.

The statement reads:

‘Mr. Gilligan on September 28, 2013 at 22:44 I responded with several other officers to a under aged party at 732 Main St., Boxford. Erin Cox was one of many people under the age of 21 at the residence. I had the opportunity to speak with and observe Erin Cox while waiting for her mother to arrive. Erin did not have the slightest odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from her person. She was polite, articulate, steady on her feet, and very remorseful for her decision to go into the residence but was only helping out a friend that had called her for a ride. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me.

Cox was stripped of her title as captain of the North Andover High School Girls Volleyball team. She was suspended for five games as well.

The Patch story also quotes Erin Cox’s attorney, Wendy Murphy, who is preparing a lawsuit: 

In court hearing, Murphy said, the court evaded the case citing a lack of of jurisdiction after the lawyer for the school, Attormey Geoffrey Bok, said Cox was arrested at the scene.

‘The principal was there and did not correct the record,’ Murphy said.

Murphy said it’s still early in the process and there is no monetary compensation determined or even specific defendants named. But it won’t demand Cox’s reinstatement as team captain.

‘Our lawsuit will address several issues, though it will only seek prospective changes to the rules so that kids are not fearful of being designated drivers,’ Murphy said. ‘We will certainly also file claims regarding the lies, including the false claim about Erin being arrested at the scene.

The Patch also posted a more complete article about the statements of school Superintendent Kevin Hutchinson: 

Although we have been asked by several media outlets to respond to the allegations made against North Andover High School, our practice is to not comment on matters involving student discipline,’ Hutchinson said in a statement Tuesday. ‘This approach is consistent with state and federal laws that prohibit the disclosure of confidential student record information.’

‘We do not have a ‘zero tolerance policy.’ Each incident is fully investigated and decided upon based on the individual facts and circumstances. Our administrators are tasked with applying the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) rules pertaining to student-athletes and alcohol in a consistent and fair manner,’ Hutchinson wrote. ‘To be clear, the MIAA’s, and by extension North Andover High School’s, ‘chemical health rule’ prohibits student-athletes from possessing alcohol, in addition to prohibiting its use, consumption, or distribution.

Considering Hutchinson’s statement, and the statement of police officer Brian Neely, it would seem that Cox has not, in fact, violated any MIAA or North Andover High School rule regarding alcohol.  And the plot thickens:

Cox has reportedly been cleared of any wrongdoing regarding alcohol use or distribution at the party in question. And Hutchinson — who said disciplinary decisions like these are made by the principal following MIAA guidelines — did not offer any clarification as to why North Andover High School Principal Carla Scuzzarella decided the particular punishment was appropriate.

What are we to make of the accusations of what appear to be a few fellow teenagers that Cox was at the party, was drinking, and was so drunk she vomited in a bucket?  One of these teenagers has implied the ability to produce a video of Cox vomiting in a bucket, or of vomit in a bucket, or something similar–or not.

Knowing teenagers, whenever a controversial issue arises, there is never any lack of emphatic opinions and absolute certainty, regardless of the origin of that certainty.  Fourth-hand knowledge becomes absolute truth with astonishing speed.

However, absent convincing evidence otherwise, it would seem reasonable to believe Officer Neeley, whose statement about his observations of Cox is unequivocal and starkly at odds with any claim that she was drinking, drunk or sick at the party.  As I noted in the original story, Officer Neeley is obviously willing to testify to his observations, which would, to any rational prosecutor, make dismissal of the summons/citation issued to her a foregone conclusion.  In fact, it makes me wonder what evidence any officer could have had for issuing a citation, and makes me suspect that citation, and potentially others issued that night, were of the “cite ‘em all and let the judge sort ‘em out” variety, devoid of probable cause for arrest and evidence to sustain the charge.  This is, sadly, not uncommon with some officers, and they usually get away with it, because most people will simply pay the citation rather than go through the bother and expense of a trial.

The cryptic statements of Mr. Hutchinson would seem to suggest that the school’s decision was not based on any involvement with alcohol by Erin Cox.

If so, this makes the decision of school principal Carla Scuzzarella even harder to understand, and potentially, to defend.  It would appear that her decision–which was obviously affirmed and supported by Hutchinson–was based on nothing more than the fact that Cox tried to do a good deed, a good deed which far from potentially causing harm, would have prevented it.  One might reasonably speak with Cox–or any teenager–and make the point that it would have been best–in a perfect world–to call adults to drive her friend home.  However, we don’t live in a perfect world, and it’s difficult to understand why anyone would consider what we believe Cox to have done worthy of punishment.

While there could be other factors involved, it’s hard to imagine what they might be.  Cox has apparently not denied anything she did.  In fact, the only person apparently lying in this case has been the school’s attorney who told a judge that Cox was arrested at the party.  And while any attorney will zealously represent their client, I’ve known very few attorneys that would pursue a lawsuit on behalf of a client they knew to be lying, or had reasonable grounds to believe were lying.  While I don’t know Ms. Murphy, she certainly doesn’t sound like a lawyer with a lying client.

I’ll continue to follow this case to its eventual outcome, but for the moment, it does appear to be a case of a well-intentioned teenager improperly punished by overzealous school authorities, authorities who, unless there is far more serious and specific evidence of violation of school rules by Cox, don’t seem to have a legal or ethical leg upon which to stand.