Mayor Colleen Hilton has halted a city investigation into whether Westbrook High School officials properly handled the suspensions of two dozen student-athletes – and the lifting of those suspensions – and has asked the school district to hire an outside investigator instead.
“This matter should be thoroughly investigated so the credibility of our school system can be restored,” she wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Superintendent Marc Gousse and School Committee Chairman James Violette.
The city’s human resources director, who also works for the schools, had already begun an investigation at Gousse’s request. Hilton ordered the investigation stopped, saying it’s important to have a third-party investigator to ensure an impartial analysis.
“We have concluded that the rapidly expanding complexity and scope of alleged school-related malfeasance, including student misconduct; misapplication of the code of conduct; interference by school administrative personnel or school committee members in disciplinary matters; is well beyond the capacity of the HR office to investigate,” she wrote. “Thus we are immediately terminating the involvement of the HR director and staff in this investigation.”
The issue has prompted parents and at least one teacher to speak out at recent School Committee meetings. Rumors have circulated about how and why the suspensions were lifted. Critics have questioned whether it was done to allow some football players to participate in a playoff game Nov. 8. The suspensions were lifted on the day of the game.
“I don’t have any statutory or legal authority over the school, so I’m not trying to impose myself,” Hilton said Thursday about her decision. “We can work collaboratively.”
Westbrook High School Athletic Director Marc Sawyer said he suspended boys and girls from several fall sports teams on Nov. 6 after interviewing more than 40 students about a party held the weekend before Halloween, reportedly at the home of a student.
Some students admitted to drinking, while others said they were present while others drank, he said.
Principal Jon Ross said he and Sawyer decided two days later to lift all of the suspensions because they had received new information and because questions were raised about the “knowingly present” clause of the student code of conduct. Ross and Sawyer said the playoff game was not the reason for their decision.
Superintendent Gousse has said that he had nothing to do with the decision to lift the suspensions, and that he supported the decision by Ross and Sawyer.
Ross said he was unaware of Hilton’s letter. Violette did not return calls for comment Thursday.
The “knowingly present” policy requires students to leave a place “as soon as practicable” when they know that people in that place are illegally using alcohol or drugs.
Sawyer said he is continuing his own investigation, and may re-impose the suspensions. Ross has instituted a new policy requiring every student-athlete and their parents or guardians to sign a copy of the code of conduct.
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 sessions with the school’s substance abuse counselor.
The athlete also must forfeit any leadership position for the season, and cannot receive individual honors or awards for that sport.
Gousse said he 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.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: