February 10

At Maine schools, drinking and drug rules often hard to enforce

The controversy over reversed athlete suspensions in Westbrook shows the difficulty for districts in creating clear, effective policies.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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