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Student faces criticism after TV show comments

Allyn Harvey

An Aspen High School student who spoke frankly about teen drinking on local television a few weeks ago says she’s been confronted by a coach as a result of her honesty.

Dana Stewart, a senior at AHS, gained some unexpected notoriety after saying that the real issue with drinking for many high school students doesn’t have anything to do with the question of whether it’s right or wrong.

“For some kids, it’s not necessarily about not doing it, it’s about not getting caught,” she said.

Stewart made the comment on the Feb. 13 broadcast of “Be Heard! Aspen,” a teen talk show that is aired live every Tuesday at 2 p.m. The program brings together a panel of kids from local high schools to discuss issues important to them. Stewart was a panel member on the program about teenage drinking and driving, which was shown on a screen in the Aspen High School auditorium.

“I don’t see the point of doing something like `Be Heard!’ if people aren’t going to be real,” Stewart said after the show. “All the negative feedback means kids won’t tell the truth when they’re on the show.”

An hour or so after appearing on the program, Stewart said she showed up for basketball practice and the head coach made it clear he was upset with her comments on the show. “I’m not happy with what you said,” she recalls the coach saying.

Then an assistant coach walked up to her and said, “So, I hear you drink.”

The second comment presented Stewart with a slippery situation. Student athletes are required to sign a “Code of Conduct” form that bars them from drinking during the season. Athletes caught drinking or doing drugs are automatically suspended from the team for two weeks, and their return to action depends on a ruling by the high school’s Athletic Eligibility Committee.

Stewart said several of her teammates also expressed dismay over her comments.

Within the next few days, Stewart’s yearbook class teacher, Tom Fisher, pulled her aside and questioned whether she was trustworthy enough to join the class on a trip to San Francisco in April.

“He said something like, `I hear the only thing you worry about is getting caught,'” she recounted. “I told him, `That’s not what I meant at all. And besides, it has nothing to do with yearbook class.'”

Stewart admits that she hasn’t had the best relationship with Fisher this year, and the latest incident – after which she decided to drop her yearbook class – ended what had been an uncomfortable situation for both of them.

Fisher said he regrets that things blew up, but maintains that he was acting responsibly when he confronted her. He said the comment on television rekindled some concerns he had about her earlier in the year.

“It really boils down to an issue of trust,” Fisher said. “The comments she made on the TV program were a flag for me.”

Fisher said he felt the responsible action was to raise the issue immediately. “This is a school-sponsored trip with 20 students. I need a level of trust with everybody, so I can understand that they’re not a liability to the school, their classmates or themselves,” he said.

“Would I do it differently if I could?” he added. “I would have done it differently five minutes after it happened. As soon as it was over, I thought, `Oh, man, did that go wrong.'”

Stewart thinks her comments were taken out of context by Fisher and other people, and the misperception that resulted was blown out of proportion.

“Everyone was so wrapped up that a couple of kids admitted to drinking that they missed the whole point – that we’re against drinking and driving,” she said.

Later in the show, Stewart was unequivocal about her opposition to drinking and driving when asked how she feels about the way police officers handle young people who drive drunk. “There’s only one way for cops to deal with it – they’ve got to give you a ticket. It’s their job,” she said.

R.A. Beattie, the senior who led the panel discussion that day, was dismayed that Stewart caught so much flack for a comment that rung so true.

“I think it’s unfair that adults want to know what we’re thinking, but when we tell them they get on our case about it,” he said.

Aspen High School Principal Kendall Evans said he wasn’t able to comment directly about Stewart’s situation, because he didn’t see the show and wasn’t aware of the incidents with her coaches and yearbook teacher. But when he learned about her comment – that the real issue for some students is not getting caught – he said, “I think that’s true.”

Evans wondered, however, if Stewart shouldn’t have expected feedback, both positive and negative, after airing her opinions to such a large audience. “Doesn’t she become a public figure by going on TV and making those comments?” he asked.

The principal defended the right of teachers to question students about comments they make in a public forum. “You may have a teacher or a coach that wants to know a little more about what you said and why you said it.”

But at least one adult familiar with the situation – 25-year-old Jasmine de la Rosa, the host of the original “Be Heard!” series that aired statewide this fall – thinks her fellow grown-ups need to act cautiously.

“Adults need to accept the truth for what it is. They need to look at themselves before they judge young people. If they do I think they’ll find a contradiction with what they’re saying,” she said.

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