WESTBROOK – Following months of discussion, new conduct rules governing Westbrook student-athletes and School Committee members are set to be approved.

With Westbrook School Committee approval on June 25, changes will include the removal of a clause in the student-athlete code of conduct known as “knowingly present” and the timeframe of a first-infraction suspension.

A change to the conflict-of-interest policy means that School Committee members can no longer hold leadership positions in school booster or other fundraising groups.

The policy changes come in the wake of controversy stemming from student-athlete drinking in November.

According to a report filed by arbitrator John Alfano in February, the student-athlete code-of-conduct policy was a major contributor to a flawed investigation of the November incident by the school administration.

Conflicting opinions on the investigation among high school administrators resulted in the decision to lift the suspensions of some 30 students the day before a Westbrook playoff football game. Following the Alfano report, a committee made up of parents, students and staff discussed the policy and recommended changes.

Jon Ross, Westbrook High School’s principal, said Wednesday – the last day of the school year – that the process, which began when snow was still coming down, “involved a lot of people and input.” He said that the policy committee had eight meetings in nine weeks, and that it was difficult to develop changes that everyone agreed on.

Ross said there were parents who felt strongly that a school needed a code-of-conduct policy because participation in school athletics is “a privilege, not a right,” and parents who believed the school had no business “patrolling the weekend behavior of their kids.”

“People really stayed right through to the end so we could come to a consensus, which I thought was amazing,” he said. “I developed deeper relationships with some of the parents on the committee because of the time we spent working on this.”

Alfano’s report said the “knowingly present” clause in the code of conduct was “nearly impossible to enforce,” but also said it suffered from a lack of support from the school department to enforce the policy, which came from pressure from parents and others outside the department.

The report pointed to a School Committee member whose son was one of the athletes initially suspended, stating that her involvement on the committee complicated the investigation. Commiteee member Suzanne Joyce later said that she advocated for her son, but did so in a professional manner. Joyce has also served in leadership roles in various booster groups during her time on the committee.

Joyce said Wednesday that the new policy is good because it doesn’t prevent anyone from volunteering, but eliminates possible confusion that could come from holding leadership positions.

Superintendent Marc Gousse said Wednesday that the changes to the School Committee’s conflict-of-interest policy were made to clarify language and make the policy more “black and white.”

“It basically speaks to the fact that as elected officials, when we talk about oversight of policy and finance, there needs to be clear lines, and I think this articulates that,” he said. “In 13 of the 14 years I’ve been in Westbrook, there hadn’t been any questions, but this year, when there were some, we stepped back and looked.”

Gousse said the policy “clearly articulates” that no School Committee member or elected officials can hold officer roles in a booster groups, but can still be involved in the groups and participate in their activities.

The School Committee voted 4-1 last week to approve the conflict-of-interest changes, with Chairman Jim Violette providing the dissenting vote, and members Veronica Bates and Alex Stone absent.

When the recommended policy changes were first discussed, Ross said that the changes would remove the “knowingly present” clause and shift language to “put the burden of proof back on the student.” He said that with “knowingly present,” the administrator had to prove the student was at a party with alcohol present, and an updated policy will put more emphasis on students to prove they were not at a party.

“We recognized that a consequence without any kind of learning is just a consequence,” he said, pointing to the policy now building in “support” for students who may have issues with substance use, as a suspension could also require counseling or community service, depending on the situation.

Ross also said the other recommended policy change is to lessen the suspension time for a first infraction by two weeks, from the original four-week model.

Currently, first infractions are met with two weeks away from a sports team and two weeks without playing in games.

“Those first two weeks without any contact with a team could allow or cause a student to engage in more at-risk behaviors,” he said.

The committee voted unanimously to approve the code-of-conduct changes last week, and will hold a final reading on June 25.


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