Westbrook school officials have hired labor mediator John Alfano to investigate how the district handled the sports-team suspensions last month of two dozen student athletes who attended a party where there was underage drinking.

Alfano, who has a private practice in Biddeford, is conducting the review to provide the district with an independent, third-party investigation, Superintendent Marc Gousse said Wednesday at a school committee meeting.

Critics have questioned whether district officials were pressured to lift the suspensions and whether they were lifted so some Westbrook football players could compete in a Nov. 8 playoff game.

Gousse said he would report the results of the investigation when Alfano is done. Alfano was not given a deadline, so Gousse did not know when the report will be complete.

Several people spoke during the public comment period at Wednesday’s meeting, including several teachers who said that while they support high school Principal Jon Ross, they are concerned about the climate surrounding the school and district.

“This has caused such a stir, not just because of the issue, but because it is symptomatic of deeper issues that have been hurting the district,” said Westbrook High teacher Michelle Fournier. “There is a perception that problems get swept under the rug, and people, me included, have been afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation. But this has to stop.”

The school’s athletic director suspended the students from athletic play, in line with the school conduct code, after interviewing them about their presence at the Halloween party.

Two days later, all the suspensions were lifted by the athletic director and Ross, who said they got “new information” and because questions were raised about part of the student code that concerns being “knowingly present” at a party where there is underage drinking.

Ross said their decision had nothing to do with the playoff game.

Ross has since said all new student athletes and their parents must sign a copy of the code of conduct, and he has arranged for student leaders to meet in small groups next week with all winter-sports athletes to discuss underage drinking and the code of conduct.

The school’s drug education coordinator also will hold a series of “living room” meetings with students and parents at homes to talk about the issue.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@mainetoday.com