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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 25, 2009

Alcoholism is a disease that can be treated

Our heart sank when we learned this week that Mary Petrilli had been arrested again. We still remembered her as the dedicated teacher and competent principal we had covered years before at Berne-Knox-Westerlo.

We hesitated to run the mug shot from the state police. We recalled a well-groomed, crisply dressed woman — not the image the police sent.

We can imagine the school board is relieved it settled earlier with Petrilli; she no longer works at BKW and her retirement is slated for the end of the month.

She was arrested on June 17 for forcing entry into the home she used to share with a friend, and for driving there drunk. Police said her breath sample had more than twice the legal limit.

“Of course, it’s an embarrassment to the district still,” said Superintendent Steven Schrade, “but it has not interfered, disrupted, or influenced the daily operations of the district in any way.”

When Petrilli was first arrested nearly a year ago in her Schodack home for threatening a woman with a kitchen knife, we received many calls from Hilltown residents, criticizing the school board for granting Petrilli a nine-month medical leave. She had returned to work just a month before her Aug. 9, 2008 arrest for menacing and possession of a weapon after, police say, she held a 12-inch knife during a “domestic dispute” in her yard.

Two days after her arrest, the school board voted unanimously to put Petrilli on administrative leave while the incident was investigated. It is important to distinguish, as the school board did, between the medical leave and the arrest that led to her being placed on administrative leave.

A principal’s arrest can hamper her ability to perform her duties as a leader, Schrade said at the time. It is difficult, Schrade said, for a principal to lead a school if people perceive that the principal is not living up to the same standards that are expected of the students and staff. This makes sense. But, again, the reasoning is different than that for the medical leave.

When we asked if Petrilli’s medical leave was related to alcoholism, Schrade followed the rules as he always does. He told us that whether Petrilli had a problem with alcohol or not is not something the school could acknowledge; the reason for her leave must remain confidential.

“Secondly,” he went on, “by law, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, anyone with alcoholism is treated the same as a person with a disability…If, in fact, any employee has such a disability, we are required to follow those laws.”

The act says that an alcoholic is a person with a disability and is protected if she or he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job. An employer can discipline, discharge, or deny employment to an alcoholic whose use of alcohol adversely affects job performance or conduct, the act says, and may prohibit the use of alcohol in the workplace and can require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol.

Teachers and parents alike were growing impatient with Petrilli’s leave and came to last June’s school board meeting to complain about it. We believe the school board did the right thing to give her a chance.

We wrote eight years ago about a popular athletic director in the Guilderland School District who had a gambling problem and ended up resigning after being charged with stealing gate receipts from high-school games. Clearly, it is wrong to steal and our society has laws that allow us to punish transgressors.

We took an in-depth look at problem gambling then and found that nearly 5 percent of New Yorkers are lifetime problem gamblers, according to the New York Council on Problem Gambling.  Compulsive gambling, similar to other addictions, is a progressive behavior disorder in which a person has a preoccupation and an uncontrollable urge to gamble. Some employers, we learned, help employees who have stolen from them if they are problem gamblers willing to work on recovery. That was a course that the school district never considered.

At the time, no one in the school administration or on the school board had a good word to say about the athletic director. Two of the players on his basketball team showed compassion, though. They wrote us a letter about how well loved their coach had been. “In today’s world,” they wrote, “which is full of people who are quick to devour stories of scandal and disgrace, forgiveness is a rare, but powerful thing….We urge the community to not rush to judgment or to let his one mistake overshadow all the good that he has brought to Guilderland.”

Breaking the law does not always mean the end of a job. Several years before the athletic director was arrested, a highly respected Guilderland High School principal was arrested for driving while intoxicated. The school board members discussed, some of them publicly, whether or not he should keep his job. He was retained and remained a great asset to the district until his retirement.

Our country has long been split on alcohol use. Prohibition is the only issue on which the United States passed and then repealed a Constitutional amendment.

People found ways to manufacture and drink alcohol despite prohibition. Today, there are still divisions. Some medical studies tout alcohol in moderation as a boon. Some churches forbid liquor in any form.

We believe alcoholism is a disease, not a moral failing. The Joint Committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines alcoholism as “a primary, chronic disease characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking.” Diseases can and should be treated.

At The Enterprise, we feel sad and somewhat helpless as week after week we compile lists of those arrested in our area for driving drunk. We often note repeated names and wonder if they are alcoholics. It’s clear to everyone that people shouldn’t drive drunk; they can kill themselves and others.

But the disease has a way of skewing judgment so the alcoholic convinces himself he has no problem. The human toll is immense, and not just measured in crashes on the road. Jobs are lost, friends are hurt, families are torn asunder, many are scarred for life.

The problem of alcoholism circles the globe. About 140 million people around the world suffer from alcohol dependence, according to the World Health Organization. The organization also came up with estimates of the economic costs of alcohol abuse, which range from 1 to 6 percent of a nation’s gross domestic product. Roughly 14 million Americans abuse alcohol or are alcoholic, costing about $200 billion a year. There are no measures of the emotional costs.

Alcohol is the third leading cause of death in the United States, a country where 9 percent of the adults are alcoholics.

A few people this week have reiterated the old complaint that the school district erred in giving Petrilli a medical leave. We believe the board was right to give her a chance. It’s a shame she wasn’t able to improve.

Now her behavior is termed an embarrassment to the district. We believe, though, that the board has nothing to be embarrassed about. Rather, its members should be proud.

Against these overwhelming numbers — 9 percent — it may seem like a very small accomplishment that one rural school district allowed an administrator time to heal. Employers have to give workers a chance to recover if our society is to move forward.

Covering up the problem or pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t going to make it go away. Understanding that alcoholism is a disease and that rehabilitation can work is a first and necessary step on the road to recovery.

Compassion is in short supply these days. We embrace it wherever we can find it.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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