DARIEN — Darien High School students now need to do more than just keep up their grades to take part in after school activities.

A new high school policy will require an estimated 600 students and their parents to complete substance abuse education course by Sept. 19 in order to be eligible to take part in any after school activity. Failure to complete the course will bar students from participating in sports or clubs.

“What we've done is build a collaboration with community agencies, police, local community members with expertise in legal background and with our own admin to put together what we think will be a very meaningful program,” said Superintendent Dan Brenner at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “We understand the meaning of this is to be best educators we can be. This is a high visibility moment and we have to do it in way that is meaningful, thoughtful and engaging.”

The high school is offering four sessions for students and parents to attend, including one on a Saturday morning. Students and parents must sign into the course together. Tentative dates for the course are Aug. 23, Aug. 29, Sept. 16 and Sept. 19.

The course will be made up of three 30 minute sessions, focusing on the effect substance use has on the brain, the story of someone personally affected by substance use and on the legal consequences of using drugs and alcohol. The sessions will be taught by different members of the community, including local law enforcement, attorneys, and staff at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan. The program was created in collaboration with people from these different areas, as well as school administration.

The new course and accompanying policy replaces “the commitment,” a policy set in place to discipline students caught drinking off school grounds. The district removed this policy after finding it wasn’t effective in reducing teen drinking. The goal of this new policy is not to replace “the commitment,” but to educate students and their parents about the dangers of substance use.

“We hope that’s the beginning of a conversation that they have,” said Brenner who noted the policy is the result of surveying parents and using other data. “We’re giving them an open opportunity to meet and be in same room as their kids. We want them in same room as kids to promote that conversation.”

For some, this new policy was perceived as groundbreaking. Matthew Maddox, a New Canaan attorney who’s been speaking to student groups, sports teams and schools for 15 years about the legal consequences of illegal substance use, spoke to express his enthusiasm to the board about the course and his role in it.

“This is exciting, this is tremendous,” Maddox said. “You have a superintendent here who is courageous. You all can be the Darien courageous board of education. If you weren’t already known as that, you will be. This is exciting to me. I am so looking forward to speaking to your students and families. This dialogue, communication and what this community can do, the idea of putting health and welfare before students first, yes, even before putting students on field, is tremendous.”

However, some members of the boards expressed concerns over the communicating this new requirement, the consequences if students don’t comply or the backlash from parents.

“I applaud everyone who's been involved with this,” said board member David Dineen. “It’s impressive and I think it takes district to the next level. I would say accompanying this should be some type of schedule that shows when each coach is kicking off their season, then you get into dates you need...You need to be clear what happens. The final date is Sept.19. What happens Sept 20? In the next two weeks we should let them know...I think we should make it as accessible as possible.”

A letter with the new policy will be sent out to Darien High School parents and guardians and will invite students not taking part in after school activities to join the course (about 15 percent of the student population). Coaches will also be informed and the policy will be updated in the online student handbook which students need to sign. Brenner also said exceptions may be made if a student and parent can’t make one of the four-course dates.

“If we come away and there are 150 kids who haven’t done it, then it's possible we didn’t communicate and hold enough sessions,” Brenner said. “The goal is to educate, not to penalize…but at one point or another the line in the sand is drawn and people have to make a decision one way or another. This is our right. These are extracurriculars.”

John Bradley, the boys’ soccer coach, said the district might not reach many students with their tentative course dates, calling the first two dates (tentatively Aug. 23 and Aug. 29) “almost irrelevant” due to how early they are in the start of sports seasons.

“You'll be lucky if you get five percent there,” he told the board. “I’d recommend maybe keeping one late summer, but moving to the 29 because that’s when every sport meets with their kids.

“I think most people will get this done,” he added. “I think your struggle will be maybe a parent and kid can't make the same one, so that'll take a lot of tracking with administration.”

EKayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata