WESTBROOK — Westbrook High School students say they got a clear message in the fall when the suspensions of about 30 student-athletes who had attended a drinking party were lifted.

“They can do what they want and get away with it,” said sophomore Chelsea Rairdon.

Since then, a group of students has spoken out against substance abuse and worked with administrators to try to change the culture of the high school by attending community forums and talking to underclassmen.

A handful of them were selected by Principal Jon Ross to speak with the Portland Press Herald on Wednesday about the attention their school has gotten in the past year and how it has affected them and other students – most of whom, they said, aren’t breaking the rules. Rairdon said Ross didn’t instruct them on what to say.

As the community-wide discussion of substance abuse grew after the party in the fall, the students started seeing their peers making better choices. Then, last week, there was another party. Two students were arrested, others were issued court summonses and seven athletes were suspended or removed from their teams.

“I felt like all of our hard work … it just didn’t mean anything,” Rairdon said.

Soon after news of the latest party broke, students took to social media, namely Twitter, where the differences in their attitudes about the incident became clear.

Some defended friends who got in trouble. Others said they should be held accountable.

“It showed how divided we are,” said Hannah Smith, a junior.

There was criticism of the news coverage and questions about why the focus was on Westbrook, when there are minors in every town who drink.

“I think (the media are) only doing that because the other schools handle it differently,” Rairdon said.

Drinking has decreased among Maine high school students in recent years, according to the Maine Youth Integrated Health Survey. The number of students who said they had had a drink in the past 30 days dropped from about 32 percent in 2009 to 26 percent in 2013. During the same period, the number of students who said they had had more than five drinks in a row within the past 30 days dropped from about 19 percent to about 15 percent.

Smith said she’s sure that Westbrook isn’t much different from other communities in its underage drinking, but she wants it to be – in a positive way. She said there’s an attitude that “this is how things are, this is how our parents did it,” and she hopes to help change that sentiment before there’s a tragedy.

“I don’t think it needs to come to somebody dying for this lesson to be learned,” she said.

Morgan Mulkern is evidence that teenagers can change their attitudes toward alcohol and drugs. “I was on that road at one point,” said the Westbrook High junior.

Mulkern, who said she used to drink and smoke, saw how substance abuse affected the lives of her family members and decided to change her behavior. Now, she’s among the students speaking out against it.

So is Mazin Ahmed, although his experience is much different. Ahmed, a Muslim, said drinking and drug use are against his religion and he hasn’t seen much of that behavior.

He found out from his track coach that a respected member of his team was among those suspended last week.

“I was sad,” he said. “I know that person. I couldn’t believe that they did that.”

Ahmed said his coach was angry.

Austin Blake, a captain of the baseball team, said his coach took it a step further and adopted a zero-tolerance policy, meaning any player who violates the extracurricular code of conduct – even for the first time – will get kicked off the team.

The code of conduct, which is under review by school officials, calls for a four-week suspension from athletics or other activities for a first infraction.

The baseball coach, Greg Souza, refused to say whether he had changed his policy. Four members of his team, the defending state champion, were among those suspended for going to the party last week.

“Obviously, it’s tough – not just losing players, but losing friends” from the team, Blake said.

But a new message has been sent within the school, the students said. Now, it’s a matter of repairing its reputation.

“It’s the minority of the student body that’s giving us the bad rap,” Mulkern said. “I feel like it’s time for Westbrook to take a stand and say, ‘We’re not a bad town and a bad school department.’ On the whole, we’re good people.”

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @lesliebridgers

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