WESTBROOK — Student-athletes will no longer be able to claim ignorance when caught at a party with alcohol, and school board members won’t be allowed to serve as officers of booster groups, according to policy changes that the Westbrook School Committee gave initial approval to Wednesday.
The committee voted to amend its policies for the extracurricular code of conduct and school board member conflict of interest, as recommended in a report done by an outside investigator hired in the fall, after school officials were criticized for their decision to overturn the suspensions of about 30 student-athletes who attended an underage drinking party.
No members of the public commented on the policies and there was no discussion among board members before the vote. The committee will take a final vote on both policies on June 25.
The report by Biddeford mediator John Alfano found the clause in the code of conduct that prohibited student-athletes from “knowingly” being in the presence of underage drinking or drug use made the policy unenforceable.
Because administrators disagreed on how to interpret that clause, they decided their investigation into the autumn party was flawed and overturned the suspensions.
A group of school officials and community members has been discussing how to improve the policy since February.
Its recommended changes, presented to the School Committee on Wednesday, include removing the word “knowingly,” so students who are at a party can’t get out of trouble by saying they were unaware of any drinking.
Another change was to reduce the punishment for a first-time violation of the policy from a four-week suspension from extracurricular activities to two weeks. But the group recommended adding other repercussions, such as performing community service or attending a substance abuse prevention program.
Administrators have said they believe the four-week suspension, which is longer than most schools in southern Maine, may have deterred students, some of whom need help with substance abuse, from turning themselves in to school officials, because they could miss nearly an entire sports season. By offering a range of punishments, administrators said, they could adjust the consequences to the severity of the offense and to the particular student’s needs.
The board unanimously supported the policy change Wednesday, though members Alex Stone and Veronica Bates were absent.
In his report, Alfano also recommended that the School Committee clarify its policy on conflicts of interest for school board members because of School Committee member Suzanne Joyce’s involvement, as a parent, in the investigation into the party. Her son was among those initially suspended.
“Although school board members do not lose their rights to defend their children in these matters, this board member is quite active and visible in (Westbrook High School), because the board member is actively involved in school organizations,” Alfano’s report said. “The lines or the appearance of the lines between and among those activities appear to have become blurred.”
The current policy has prohibited school board members and their spouses from being the leader of a school-related group who reports directly to a school administrator. The proposed change would include prohibiting them from serving as “an officer, director or board member” of any group that raises money for a school related activity, including, “without limitation, booster groups, parent teacher organizations and parent teacher associations.”
The School Committee voted, 4-1, with Jim Violette opposed, in support of amending the policy.
Violette said, after the meeting, that because booster groups “have no say in how the athletic department is run,” he doesn’t feel there is a conflict of interest.
Joyce said she supported the change because it clarifies how many “different hats” a board member can wear.