Westbrook High School officials confirmed Thursday that about two dozen student-athletes were suspended from sports last week for their connection with an underage drinking party, and that the suspensions were lifted two days later after new information emerged and questions were raised about the suspension policy.
Athletic Director Marc Sawyer said the suspensions, which involved boys and girls in the school’s four fall sports, may or may not be reinstated, depending on his investigation and a review of the school’s policy for students who are “knowingly present” where alcohol or drugs are being used.
“I feel I did my very best to follow the process and protocols I had been taught,” Sawyer said of his decision to suspend the students, then lift the suspensions.
Dozens of parents attended a School Committee meeting Wednesday night to protest the lifting of the suspensions and to question whether it was done to keep some football players from missing a playoff game on Nov. 8.
In an email to the superintendent, Principal Jon Ross said the suspensions were lifted that day, even though he had denied appeals earlier.
“After many hours of information-gathering and hearing several appeals of which I denied, I have come across information today that requires me to nullify the suspension of the athletes who were considered ‘knowingly present,’ ” said the email to Superintendent Marc Gousse.
Ross said in an interview Thursday that he and Sawyer decided together to lift the suspensions.
The “knowingly present” policy requires students to leave a place “as soon as practicable” when they know that others are illegally using alcohol or drugs.
Sawyer said Thursday that he interviewed more than 40 students about the party held the weekend before Halloween, reportedly at the home of a student. Some of them admitted to drinking, he said, while others said they were present. He said he decided to lift all of the suspensions while he continued the investigation.
“Currently the investigation still exists and is in a holding pattern,” he said. “There are enough unanswered questions, and if you are ever going to err, err on the side of the child or the student-athlete.”
According to the school’s athletic student handbook for 2012-13, the first violation of the policy triggers an automatic four-week suspension from extracurricular activities and a two-week suspension from practice. It also triggers an automatic minimum of three counseling sessions with the school’s substance abuse counselor.
The athlete must also forfeit any leadership position for the season, and cannot receive individual honors or awards for that sport.
Ross and Sawyer said they want to review the eight-year-old policy to update it for the era of social media, particularly three sentences that address “knowingly being present” where there is illegal drinking or drug use.
Sawyer said they are struggling to define the point where a student might “knowingly” expect alcohol or drug use, whether it’s from a Facebook post or when a student sees it at a party.
While the school plans to continue investigating the allegations about the party, Gousse said Westbrook’s city-school human resources director will review how the suspensions were handled and report her findings.
Gousse also plans to hold a community forum after the holidays and a roundtable group to discuss how the situation was handled. He wants to take that feedback to the School Committee’s policy group with a recommendation on whether to change the policy.
“This is an opportunity to review this in a rational way,” he said. “Let the energy subside.”
Gousse said he fully supports school officials’ handling of the situation and has “full and unequivocal confidence” in Ross. Gousse said he got involved when three parents of suspended students approached him.
“The parents wanted to appeal,” Gousse said, and he directed all of them to Ross. “This stayed at the principal’s level, which it should.”
In an email to the School Committee on Nov. 8, Gousse wrote, “Despite any rumor or innuendo which may arise – please know (Ross) processed his decision based upon facts specific to students involved.”
The next day, committee Chairman Jim Violette sent an email to committee members saying, “Facebook is starting to rev up on this issue and we are to not comment. It is the intention of the administration and School Committee to do an internal investigation on how this issue was handled and our policy.”
Gousse said Thursday that much of the uproar is over rumors.
“Most of the people who are either angry or upset don’t have the facts,” he said. “One person has the facts, and that’s (Ross).”
He said many have accused the school of giving the football players special treatment, but the suspensions were for boys and girls in several sports. Football was the only team that was still playing.
School Committee member Ed Symbol said Thursday that committee members were informed about the incident but were not given details.
Students at the high school are talking about the issue, said freshman Sarah Chase.
“They were treating the football players differently,” said Chase, 15, who said she had to review the student athletic policy when she joined the cross country team.
“It’s clear, but it needs to be enforced every time, for everybody, and not picking favorites,” she said.
It could be changed to clarify that a student has to see illegal drinking or drug use to be considered “knowingly present,” Chase said.
It’s a tricky point, Gousse said.
“If you have irrefutable evidence they were drinking, or they say, ‘Yep, I did it,’ then that’s pretty easy,” Gousse said. “But the ‘he said, she said’ and ‘I tried to
leave’ or ‘it was unsafe (to leave),’ then that gets very difficult to process.”
Ross said he has already decided to make one policy change: Student-athletes and their parents or guardians will now have to sign a copy of the code of conduct.
“I know it’s not a legal document, but the reality is that if I have your signature, I have your word,” Ross said.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: