February 4

Probe finds mistakes in Westbrook suspensions controversy

Some actions by school officials led to a perception of special treatment for student-athletes, but there was no misconduct, says the report, which suggests policy changes.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Westbrook High School Superintendent Marc Gousse speaks during a Nov. 18, 2013, policy committee meeting at the school.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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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.”

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