An ambiguous policy for punishing athletes for being at drinking parties led Westbrook High School administrators to overturn the suspensions of about two dozen students last fall, which spurred accusations of favoritism and created turmoil in the community.

School officials said the suspensions were reversed because the athletic director, who handled the investigations, and the principal, who handled the students’ appeals, made different interpretations of a clause in the policy that prohibits students who participate in extracurricular activities from “knowingly” being in the presence of underage drinking or illegal drug use and making “no reasonable effort” to leave.

That isn’t a common standard for schools and it’s notoriously difficult to enforce, said Ann Chapman, a consultant from the Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum who works with school officials on their policies. She said a student could be accused of being at a party but claim to be unaware of any illegal activity.

“Someone might say, ‘That wasn’t happening in the room I was in,’ ” Chapman said. “Trying to sort out those situations can be kind of difficult.”

John Alfano, who was hired to investigate the Westbrook School Department’s handling of the case that started with a party in October, said in a report released last week that the policy is “nearly impossible to enforce,” and he called for a change. Starting with a community forum Thursday, Westbrook will review the policy to consider how to make it more effective.

“We need to work on a policy that takes the mystery out,” said Principal Jon Ross.

Westbrook Superintendent Marc Gousse, who was the high school principal until a couple of years ago, said he didn’t struggle with enforcing the policy but he supports asking the community whether it should be changed.

Athletic Director Marc Sawyer noted that times have changed since the policy was written, specifically because of social media.

Ross agreed; word gets out.

“I can’t imagine anybody’s going to go to a party and not know there’s booze there,” he said. “I’m just not that gullible.”

At the crux of the decision to overturn the suspensions was a soccer player who said she had only driven her friend to the party so the friend could give prescription medication to her sister.

Sawyer determined that the soccer player had not violated the policy and could attend her team’s year-end banquet. Ross, however, had interpreted the policy to mean that anyone who had been at the party should be suspended. When he learned that the girl had attended the soccer banquet, he decided the investigation was flawed and reversed the suspensions.

“As (the policy) is written, it places a greater burden of proof on the administration than it places responsibility on the students for their choices, behavior and responsibility,” Alfano wrote.

South Portland is the only other school district in Greater Portland with a “knowingly present” clause in its extracurricular code of conduct. Athletic Director Todd Livingston stands behind it and said he has yet to have a situation in which it has caused complications.

Yarmouth’s school board discussed adding such a clause when it revised its policy in 2010 – shortly after a lacrosse player and her parents sued the high school for suspending her from the team in response to a photo of her holding a beer can on a social networking website. They later dropped the case.

Although Yarmouth High made some changes to its policy – but not because of the lawsuit, said Principal Ted Hall – adding a “knowingly present” clause wasn’t one of them.

“It felt difficult to enforce, and there were some people that believe if you do that, you’re kind of taking away the option of kids being designated drivers,” he said.

Last fall, a high school student in Massachusetts was suspended from her volleyball team and lost her position as captain after she picked up a friend who had been drinking at a party around the time police arrived. Although she wasn’t drinking, her presence violated the school’s “zero tolerance” policy.

NO ‘BULLET-PROOF’ MODEL POLICY

In the Westbrook report, an administrator argued in favor of the clause, saying it gives students an excuse to leave a party in the face of peer pressure. That wasn’t a good enough reason for Alfano.

“This suggestion pales when the resulting behavior of the students, parents, school board members and administration are considered,” he said, referring to a lack of support for enforcement of the policy.

Alfano said parents favor the policy until it involves their own children, and administrators lack confidence to enforce the vague language.

Jo Morrissey, project manager for 21 Reasons, a Portland-based coalition that works to prevent underage drinking, said different policies work for different towns and cities, depending on the “level of readiness to address whatever problems are unique to their community.”

The effectiveness of a policy can also be different from one student to the next, she said.

“What can work in a solid-clad, bullet-proof way is almost impossible to come up with,” said Morrissey.

Chapman, the consultant at Drummond Woodsum, said there’s a cycle to schools’ drug and alcohol policies. In the early 1990s, she said, it was more common for them to cover out-of-school activity, even in the summer.

When administrators started spending too much time policing those incidents, she said, “the pendulum went back the other way.”

Chapman said she encourages districts to review all of their policies every three years, but often that’s not practical. Substance abuse policies do tend to get more attention than most, she said, “because, unfortunately, there’s more occasion to use them.”

PUNISHMENT POLICIES VARY WIDELY

Incidents like the one in Westbrook often influence the wording of districts’ policies, Chapman said.

Aside from a 10-day limit for out-of-school suspensions, there are no legal standards for all districts. Often, she said, districts piece together what they like from other districts’ policies, so the consequences for violations “are kind of all over the map.”

There are similarities among districts. For districts in Greater Portland, consequences for drinking or drug use outside school or school-related events apply only to students who are involved in extracurricular activities.

“Those things are a privilege and honor to participate in. They’re not rights of students,” said Morrissey. “If you’re committed to want to do those things, one thing we as adults can do to help them make better decisions is hold those over them as … consequences.”

For a first offense of drug or alcohol possession or use, punishments range from sitting out one game, at Biddeford High School, to sitting out for a month, at Westbrook.

By the third offense, students in all Greater Portland school districts are suspended from school activities for at least 12 months. In Gorham, that happens after a second offense; a third offense means a ban on activities for the rest of high school.

Most districts give students leniency for turning themselves in before they get caught and agreeing to participate in substance abuse counseling, but those policies vary widely.

In Portland schools, it counts only if students self-report by noon of the school day after the violation occurs. Cape Elizabeth gives students 48 hours. In other districts, they have to do it only before they get reported by someone else.

In some schools, the reward for self-reporting a first offense is a reduced punishment. In others, it’s no punishment at all.

Hall, the Yarmouth High principal, said students there who self-report a first offense used to get their suspension from activities reduced from 14 days to seven. A couple of years ago, the school board changed the policy so those students wouldn’t be suspended at all.

“If we can encourage honesty and one of the outcomes is to get help, then it’s a win-win,” said Hall.

Although he couldn’t provide data, he said the school has “definitely had more self-reports” since it made the change.

WESTBROOK REVIEWING ITS POLICY

Westbrook’s self-reporting policy says students can seek help without getting suspended from participation, “provided the student is not involved in an incident.”

Ross wants that part of the policy changed and is looking into consequences other than suspension. “We’re trying to give them an opportunity to do right, rather than to use the policy to find loopholes,” he said.

For the policy to work, Gousse said, the community, and especially students, have to believe in it. That why he’s encouraging participation in the upcoming forums, and wants people on both sides of the recent incident to voice their opinions.

Gousse said the process shouldn’t be rushed, but he aims to have a revised policy by the start of the next school year.

Ross has already made one change in response to the incident in the fall. As of this winter, students in extracurricular activities must sign the code of conduct, a common practice among other schools.

Though Ross admits it’s more symbolic than anything, he hopes it means something to the students.

“You’re giving me your word,” he said. “As a kid, that’s kind of all you’ve got.”

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com

Twitter: @lesliebridgers