Pushy parents, an unenforceable alcohol policy and administrators who lack experience and support contributed to the decision last fall to lift the suspensions of several Westbrook High School student athletes – including football players hours before a playoff game, according to an outside investigation.
The investigation report, released Monday, details the fallout from an underage drinking party in October that led to the suspension of about 30 students from athletic events, and subsequent accusations that the athletes got special treatment when those suspensions were overturned.
The report stops short of accusing school officials of malfeasance, but says the involvement of a school board member whose son got suspended, and the superintendent’s role in her son’s case, gave the appearance of special treatment.
Jim Violette, chairman of the Westbrook School Committee, had said after a closed-door meeting Thursday night that the report, which had not been publicly released, would show “no misconduct on the part of anybody.”
The report says Superintendent Marc Gousse didn’t support the high school administrators in their investigation of the party, and instead “deflected and directed responsibility for all aspects of this investigation by attempting to remove himself, except for the school board member’s appeal, and when it suited him.”
Gousse said he sat outside the suspension appeal hearing for the school board member’s son to support Principal Jon Ross, who requested that he be there.
The school board member is not named in the report. When contacted by the Portland Press Herald on Monday, all of the women on the board denied it was them, except Suzanne Joyce, who said the district’s attorney had advised the board not to comment, to avoid identifying minors involved.
School officials said the suspensions were overturned because of differences in the interpretation of a clause in the district’s alcohol policy that says students who are “knowingly being present” at an underage drinking party and don’t make a “reasonable effort” to leave are in violation.
NO WRONGDOING, JUST PERCEPTION
Four girls who were allegedly at the party were allowed to attend their soccer team’s banquet on Nov. 6 because Athletic Director Marc Sawyer had determined that one of them hadn’t violated the policy and he had not yet decided on the others.
When Ross learned that they had attended the banquet, he decided that the investigation was flawed and overturned all of the suspensions.
“Three hours after the suspensions were lifted, the six football players suited up for the game with Kennebunk, resulting in an outcry from city officials, community members and staff, some in support and (others) against the decision,” says the report by John Alfano, the Biddeford-based labor mediator who did the investigation.
Alfano said the series of events “completely gave the appearance of wrongdoing and special consideration, especially to the football players and/or their families.”
Gousse acknowledged Monday that “there were several mistakes made,” including his decision to sit outside the appeal hearing for the suspended son of the school board member.
“It gave the appearance or the perception that there could have been undue influence. Was there? No,” he said.
Gousse said the “report confirms there was no evidence of misconduct or malfeasance” and clears him and the school board member of influencing Ross’ decision to overturn the suspensions, as they were accused of doing.
“I’ve watched this community be ripped apart by pointing fingers and blaming … and it’s sad, because none of that happened,” he said.
The report suggests that the school district make several changes to its policies and procedures to avoid similar situations in the future.
It says the superintendent is “expected to be involved with his administrative team as a peer, mentor and supervisor, especially when there are high-profile investigations,” and that the school board should “establish clear lines of responsibility between and among the superintendent and administrators for these investigations.”
BOARD MEMBER’S ROLES IN CONFLICT
The report also suggests that the school board better define boundaries for its members, considering the complication created by the one member, who had access to the high school at all times because of her elected role and her involvement with booster activities.
“The school board needs to establish policy to determine how much volunteer activities board members may participate in to help maintain clear and distinct lines between their official capacity and volunteer activities,” the report says.
It also suggests that the board member take it on herself to focus on certain roles.
“Perhaps the board member needs to choose between the school board or volunteer activities, because engaging in both is not helpful to the board member, the school board or (the high school),” the report says. “In addition, this board member’s child’s appeal had the appearance of special treatment.”
According to the report, the board member “said she has limited her visits to (the high school) this year, because some people have ‘taken my presence as meddling’ even though (she has) been there for reasons related to her parent volunteer activities.”
The report also takes other parents to task, saying they “seem to have been less concerned with their children’s possible misbehavior than their eligibility to play in the football game.”
It says “parents need to respect and support decisions which hold their children accountable for their actions rather than making every effort to denigrate and challenge those decisions and the decision-makers.”
The report also says the board needs to either dedicate itself to enforcing its alcohol policy, which is “nearly impossible to follow,” or change it.
The policy, the report says, “was written to help young people learn to make responsible decisions, which it has failed to do.”
Alfano suggested holding community forums, outside school board meetings, to form a more effective policy. Gousse said he plans to take that suggestion and hopes to have a new policy before next school year.
HOPING TO LEARN FROM INCIDENT
The report notes that this was the second incident in less than a year involving Westbrook High School athletes and their off-campus behavior. It was referring to the case of a dozen members of the state championship baseball team who vandalized South Portland’s Wainwright Athletic Complex last summer and avoided criminal charges by completing community service and paying restitution.
In that case, the report says, the high school began and then aborted its investigation after parents threatened to sue – and, again, the policy wasn’t enforced.
Administrators and school board members said they’re determined to learn from the latest incident and make changes to prevent others.
“I hope we grow as a community. I hope we put this behind us and learn from it,” said Sawyer.
Joyce said she feels that the alcohol policy “sets our administrators up to fail” because it is too vague.
Michelle Fournier, a French teacher at the high school, said she thinks the incident is “symptomatic of the issues that have plagued the Westbrook School Department for years” and shows that major changes are needed.
“I think the crucial point right now is what happens next,” she said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: