A Father's Dream

Will School Suspend Teen-Ager Over Alcohol Use?

A year ago, North Carolina teen-ager Jenna Stricoff was having a ball, her days filled with lots of high school friends and activities and even an invitation to join a prestigious honor society.

Overnight, Jenna’s ordinary world turned upside down. Doctors diagnosed her father, Michael, with terminal cancer and gave him less than a year to live. Her father had one last wish: "I wanted to see her graduate. I wanted to see her walk across that stage. I wanted to see her happy," he says.

So Jenna started a race against time, to graduate a year early and fulfill her father’s dream. "I know he’s not going to be here to see me get married. I know he’s probably not gonna be able to see his grandkids. You know, those milestones in your life that your dad’s supposed to be there for," she says.

After several months of hard work, she was just a few classes shy of a high school diploma when she made one of those life-changing mistakes that cannot be undone, a mistake that put her father's dream in jeopardy.

A friend dropped by one morning before school and wanted to sample some vodka Jenna’s brother has just brought back from Russia.

"I didn’t think we drank that much,” Jenna says. "It was probably two or three shots each." But then Jenna drove them to another friend's home, something she now says, "was the stupidest thing I did that day."

Her friends kept drinking, Jenna insists, but she did not. In fact, she says she tried to sober up on the back porch before driving to school.

When they finally arrived at Fuquay-Varina High School, says Principal Gerald Picket, the three girls were drunk. A blood alcohol test administered by the school showed Jenna’s to be 0.06.

School superintendent Bill McNeal took a tough stance. "Certainly, if you are drinking any alcoholic beverage, and you are handing it to another student, and you drive a vehicle involving those students, we have serious concerns," he tells 48 Hours.

Under the school's zero tolerance policy, Jenna was suspended from school for the year. The other two girls were suspended for two weeks.

Ninety percent U. S. high school have similar zero tolerance policies, but the Stricoffs believe this time, the punishment just doesn’t fit the crime.

"If you’re gonna punish her," says Jenna’s mother, Johanna, "take away her driver's license, put her on probation, but please, don't take the school away from her. She really needs this more now than ever before."

Should school officials make an exception to their "zero tolerance" policy in this case because of Jenna's father's failing health?

The Result

Her father's terminal illness cut little ice with local school officials.

"We want to send the message that we do truly care about you and that there are consequences for actions and this action can lead to very serious safety concerns to these young people," says McNeal,.

Jenna enrolled in a privately run charter school and hit the books hard. Within weeks, she was ready to graduate.

"Like many other teen-agers, I made mistakes, and I’ve done things that I know were wrong," says Jenna, who received her diploma on time after all, with both her mother and her father there to see it.

"I’m very, very happy, and I’m very, very proud," says her father. "I was hoping I would see this day."