WESTBROOK – As Westbrook school officials try to quell the controversy surrounding an incident of possible student-athlete drinking and the resulting disciplinary actions, a letter sent by Mayor Colleen Hilton, which asked school administration to hire an independent investigator to review the matter, raises new questions.

Following a Westbrook School Committee meeting on Nov. 13, in which some parents and a teacher spoke out against the handling and interpretation of Westbrook’s code of conduct policy for student athletes, Superintendent of Schools Marc Gousse tapped Westbrook’s director of human resources, Martha Sumner, to conduct an internal review of the policy.

However, in a letter sent to Gousse and School Committee Chairman Jim Violette on Nov. 21, Hilton said she was immediately removing Sumner from conducting the review. Hilton said Friday that city officials have heard an outpouring of comments from the public, who are declining to take up the issue with members of the School Committee.

“A lot of people have been reaching out to me and other city officials demanding action,” she said. “For whatever reason, there seems to be reluctance from employees and parents to communicate with the School Committee right now.”

In the letter, Hilton wrote that alleged interference by school officials could be the reason more people are coming to the city with their comments. She said the city’s human resources office is not equipped to handle a probe.

“The rapidly expanding complexity and scope of alleged school-related malfeasance, including student misconduct; misapplication of the code of conduct; interference by school administrative personnel or school committee members in disciplinary matters; is well beyond the capacity of the HR office to investigate,” Hilton wrote.

“We believe it is prudent and necessary for the School Administration and School Committee to arrange for the hiring of an independent investigator, and we urge you to do so.”

Gousse said Monday that, while not trying to minimize the issue, he has only received two emails, two phone calls and had three parent meetings concerning the issue.

Hilton said a major factor in her decision to write the letter came from being informed that a School Committee member had spent “a considerable amount of time” talking to Sumner. However, she added that she doesn’t know for a fact that it happened, but has been told from multiple people that it has.

“I didn’t feel comfortable about that, because she’s supposed to be doing the investigating, not the other way around,” she said.

Violette said Monday that as far as he knows, no one from the School Committee tried to interfere in the review. According to Violette, Sumner told school officials Friday that no one had tried to interfere.

“I’m sure she’s talked to school officials, but we’re not trying to sway her in any way,” he said.

Violette added that he’d like to see better communication among all of the city’s elected officials.

“This happened because of a perception, but in my view, the perception isn’t there,” he said.

Multiple calls to Sumner were not returned by the American Journal’s early holiday deadline Tuesday.

In response to the charge of interference by school officials, Gousse said, “I can’t change rumor and public perception, but if someone has facts or evidence, bring it forward.”

Gousse said Monday that if he had known that city administration was going to request an outside investigator, he never would have asked the city human resources department.

“I saw the human resources director as value neutral,” he said.

Gousse added that an outside investigation will cost the school department additional dollars, which, he said, played into his initial decision to select human resources, which already works for both the school department and city.

Gousse said that the department has not yet chosen an outside party to conduct the review, but said the administration is working with the school department’s attorney to find a candidate who is familiar with school policy and process. He said the person chosen will not be an attorney.

Also during this time, more details have emerged about the sequence of events leading to the controversy, as well as the difficulty for school administrators to pin down enough details to build a consensus of what happened and who was involved.

After investigating a report of a party involving student athletes that occurred the weekend before Halloween, Westbrook Athletic Director Marc Sawyer suspended roughly two dozen athletes from their fall sports programs. However, on Friday, Nov. 8, after receiving information that skewed the initial decision, Sawyer, along with high school Principal Jon Ross, lifted the suspensions for all the athletes.

Due to the timing of when the student athletes were reinstated – the same day as a Westbrook High School playoff football game – school administrators have been accused of making the decision solely to allow members of the team to compete. However, Sawyer and Ross say that isn’t the case. Suspensions were also given, and then lifted, to students participating in soccer and track.

“We realize the timing couldn’t have been worse, but we lifted all the suspensions. Football just happened to be the only program left playing,” Ross said. “The decision wasn’t made lightly, and we thought that we had to weigh on the side of the kids until we had more information.”

Gousse said that while a policy review conducted by the city’s human resources office could have potentially been completed after Thanksgiving break, an outside review will no doubt slow down the process.

However, with the winter sports season already under way, Ross and Sawyer said they aren’t waiting for results of the review to discuss how they can improve code-of-conduct understanding among student-athletes, as well as what they see as the larger issue of student drinking.

“How do we support the code while putting in safety nets so that kids know what the code means and how to get out of tough situations if they’re ever in them?” Sawyer said.

The school’s existing policy includes a “knowingly present” clause, which states: “Knowingly being present means that when a student remains in a location where others are illegally using alcohol or drugs and, being aware of that, makes no reasonable effort to remove himself or herself from that location.”

But the details of when and how students are involved are clouded by the next phrase in the policy, which states: “A student who finds himself or herself in a location where alcohol or drugs are being used illegally is expected to leave that location as soon as practicable.”

A first offense means a four-week suspension of extra-curricular activities, missing a minimum of one game.

Ross said that enforcing the policy with the “knowingly present” clause is difficult for school officials because these events usually occur during weekends, off school grounds, and are exacerbated by a heavy social media presence.

“Things in 2013 move so fast,” he said. “A different story can be painted so quickly ahead of us, and we really need to think about that.”

Ross added that the school will return to making it mandatory for students and their parents, when possible, to sign the athletic department’s code of conduct. Ross said that while it’s not a binding legal document, he sees it as having their word, and will possibly cut down on students using the “I didn’t know” excuse.

In addition to plans for roundtable talks, which will bring students, teachers and coaches together for discussions, Ross said the school wants to be proactive and has been looking at gauging interest in “parent meet-ups,” a facilitated conversation among parents to address challenges and best practices around substance abuse and prevention. Ross said he’s looking at the Westbrook boosters, a group of parents who meet regularly and support school sports programs, as a jumping off point.

“This is just one of the things that I think will be a good addition to the winter sports season,” he said.

Also upcoming will be a community forum hosted by school officials to hear public input on Westbrook’s existing code of conduct policy.

“We want to listen to what people have to say, vet that against existing policy, and potentially make some recommendations to the policy committee,” Gousse said.

Sawyer said that Biddeford schools recently changed the code of conduct by doing away with the “knowingly present” clause, while some area schools base discipline strictly on consumption, which Sawyer and Ross believe is more difficult to enforce, but provides a “smoking gun.”

Ross said that there was a period, when students were first using cell phones, where students were more often tied to parties through posting photos, etc., but that students are now quicker to cover up or prevent proof of being at a party.

“A student recently told me that I wouldn’t find a Facebook post, photo or tweet tied to an event,” he said.

“Underage drinking isn’t a school issue, it’s an issue in the schools,” Gousse said. “We’re not the only district that has had this challenge, and we’re not going to be the last.”

This is the second incident involving student-athletes since June, when 12 members of the Westbrook High School baseball team were sentenced in July to community service after vandalizing the Wainwright Fields in South Portland.


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