January 31

Westbrook probe into athlete suspensions leads to no action

Results of the third-party investigation were not immediately released because of concerns about confidential information that was not properly redacted.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WESTBROOK — An independent investigation into the handling of the suspension of several Westbrook High School athletes who were reinstated right before a playoff football game last fall revealed no wrongdoing, school officials said Thursday night.

“The report will show that there was no misconduct on the part of anybody,” said Jim Violette, chairman of the Westbrook School Committee. “Mistakes were made.”

Officials would not release the report Thursday night.

Superintendent Marc Gousse said the investigation will likely lead to a re-evaluation of the policy involved in the suspensions, the “knowingly present” clause.

The policy requires the school to discipline students who are at any event where they know illegal activity is occurring, including drinking or drug use. School officials have said the provision is hard to enforce and interpret in its current form.

The report by John Alfano, a Biddeford-based labor mediator, was the subject of a nearly two-hour private meeting by the committee Thursday night.

Patricia Dunn, the school district’s attorney, said the release of the report will be delayed because Alfano did not redact some confidential information, and more time is needed to ensure that no one’s privacy will be violated by premature publication.

Dunn, Violette and Gousse initially refused to elaborate on anything in the report, saying the district must err on the side of caution in cases with sensitive information about students.

After repeated questioning, they said that the report’s findings will result in no specific action, and that there was no misconduct in the disciplinary process last fall.

The incident stemmed from an alleged underage drinking party in October. About two dozen student-athletes were suspended from sports for their connection to the party, but the suspensions were lifted two days later, on Nov. 8, the day of a playoff football game for Westbrook High.

Some parents responded to the turnabout by criticizing school officials, saying the district was applying its rules inconsistently and setting a poor example for students.

According to the school’s handbook for 2012-13, the first violation of the policy triggers an automatic four-week suspension from extracurricular activities and a two-week suspension from practice. It also triggers a minimum of three counseling sessions with the school’s substance abuse counselor.

The athlete must also forfeit any leadership position for the season, and cannot receive individual honors or awards for that sport.

Athletic Director Marc Sawyer, who was the first to investigate the incident and interviewed about 40 students before he made the suspensions, lifted them because he came across new information about the incident.

Sawyer said that during interviews, some of the athletes admitted to drinking while others admitted to being at the party. He decided to lift all of the suspensions while he continued the investigation.

On Thursday, Dunn, Violette and Gousse refused to say what new information Sawyer received, saying the scope of the investigation did not include facts that led up to the suspensions.

“The focus (of the investigation) was the process, and how it was handled,” Dunn said.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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