February 1

Westbrook school officials don’t release report on student suspensions

The 26-page report looked into a decision by Westbrook High officials to lift the suspensions of student athletes who were allegedly at an underage drinking party.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The attorney for the Westbrook School District would not release a 26-page report Friday investigating a decision to lift the suspensions of several Westbrook High School athletes who were allegedly at an underage drinking party last fall.

School attorney Pat Dunn said early Friday afternoon that she had the final report by mediator John Alfano but refused to release it until she had redacted names of students in the report. By Friday afternoon, more than four hours later, she did not respond to email and phone messages about when the report would be available.

The report is a public document and must be released under state law. The Portland Press Herald has requested a copy of the report under the Freedom of Access Act.

At recent school board meetings, the students’ suspensions have been the subject of discussion by members of the public and some teachers, who have urged officials to fully explain why the suspensions were lifted and what led to that decision.

School officials met in executive session with the school board for more than two hours Thursday night to discuss the report, which Dunn said was dated Jan. 27, but would not release it publicly after the meeting. Dunn said Friday morning that she had already been working with Alfano “for several days” to make minor changes to his initial report, such as correcting typographical errors and dropped words, and got the final report Friday.

The incident stemmed from an alleged underage drinking party in October. Marc Sawyer, the school’s athletic director, suspended about two dozen student-athletes from sports activities in connection with the party, in line with the existing school conduct code, but the suspensions were lifted two days later on Nov. 8, the day of a playoff football game for Westbrook High.

Some parents and teachers criticized the move, saying the district was applying its rules inconsistently and setting a poor example for students.

Sawyer and Westbrook High Principal Jon Ross said they decided to lift the suspensions because they got “additional information.” They have never said what that information was, or who gave them the information, and the pressure to find out what happened led to calls for an investigation. A city investigation was planned, but Mayor Colleen Hilton halted it, saying a neutral third party should conduct it.

Sawyer and Ross said questions were also raised about a part of the student code that concerns being “knowingly present” at a party where there is underage drinking.

Ross said their decision to lift the suspensions had nothing to do with the playoff game.

Hilton, who said Friday that she had not yet seen the report, said she was interviewed by Alfano as part of the investigation.

“I’m pleased it was as thorough as it was,” Hilton said.

“People care passionately about their schools and their kids and I think there’s just been a lot of turmoil around this issue, and a lot of speculation and rumor,” Hilton added. “My hope has been to get at the facts and lay out the facts for people and then move on.”

Superintendent Marc Gousse said Friday that he had read the report and that it did not find that any person had engaged in misconduct.

“There’s no question in my mind that mistakes were made,” Gousse said after reading the report, which he refused to release. But it does suggest changing the district’s conduct code, and “this is an opportunity to review and revise the policy.”

Gousse said he was eager to move on, and said his home was vandalized last weekend in an incident he believes is related to the ongoing controversy.

“Last weekend was a turning point for me,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced it’s connected to these events. It’s very disappointing.”

He declined to detail the damage, but said it happened overnight while his family was inside and that he had filed a police report and “taken some steps” to protect his home and family.

A message left with the records department at the Westbrook Police Department was not returned Friday.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

 

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