WESTBROOK — Westbrook High School’s students and parents got an apology from the superintendent and a chance to air their concerns about the school’s culture at a forum held Monday in response to the controversy that started with an underage drinking party last fall.
The meeting was suggested in a report that detailed school officials’ decision in November to overturn the suspensions of about two dozen student-athletes, including the son of a school board member and football players who were reinstated hours before a playoff game.
The report, written by independent investigator John Alfano and released last month, didn’t accuse any school officials of malfeasance but did take them to task for failing to stand behind their policies and giving the appearance of special treatment for some students.
“I am deeply sorry,” Superintendent Marc Gousse told the 100-plus people who attended the forum in the high school auditorium Monday. “We didn’t get it right. I didn’t get it right.”
Community members who spoke said they support teachers and they “bleed blue,” referring to the school color. But they said many things are lacking at Westbrook High School and major change is needed.
Morale, respect, accountability, honor, integrity, trust and hope were among the words they used to describe what the school lacks.
City Council President Brendan Rielly, who has two children in the high school, said “it breaks (his) heart” to hear what they and their friends say about the school, his alma mater.
“Mostly, they identify a feeling that nothing’s getting done here, and that’s sad,” he said.
Rielly said he hears from friends who work in the high school that teachers are “ready to give up.” He called for a specific plan to address the problems and turn around the school’s culture.
“We can fix this,” he said.
Principal Jon Ross said the school has formed a culture and climate committee and a youth leadership team to start addressing the problems. A panel will also review the high school’s athletic code of conduct with the goal of making a recommendation to the school board’s policy committee in April and adopting a new policy in June.
Jacob Webster, a senior at the high school, said the situation makes it difficult for students to buy into the rules set by administrators.
“The people who we are supposed to look up to aren’t being a good example to us,” he said. “I’d rather lead myself.”
Jim Fahey, the father of high school students, said the problem isn’t the teachers. “Your soldiers are wonderful,” he said. “The administration needs to be held accountable.”
Steve Webster, Jacob’s father, called on Gousse to better support the staff.
“What are you, as the superintendent, going to do to empower these teachers to make them feel like they actually matter, that they have a voice, that they have control of the school again?” he asked.
Tony Bessey said a school board member’s involvement in the appeal of her son’s suspension was the one part of the report “that really, really disturbed me.”
The report did not identify the board member, and school officials have refused to name her.
“How about there be a code of conduct for our elected officials that says, ‘If you do this, you’re gone?’ ” Bessey said.
School officials said they hope that the people who attended the forum will stay involved as the discussion continues and help make decisions about what needs to change.
Ross said another community forum will be on March 25, with updates about any progress made between now and then.
“I think, right now, what we need is to regain some trust and regain some faith,” he said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: