In the last several weeks, as more information has become available from those directly involved with the student-athlete suspensions last fall in Westbrook, a few things are becoming clear.
One is the obvious black mark the botched process has given Westbrook. When school administrators failed to equitably impose disciplinary action required of the student-athlete code of conduct last fall after athletes attended a party in which alcohol was present, the whole community suffered, and is still suffering. Children need firm guidance, not wishy-washy disciplinarians. We entrust school administrators to dole out punishment fairly, and that obviously didn’t happen when suspensions were lifted prematurely, the day of a playoff football game, no less. That’s an unfortunate message to send to kids, some of whom already believe sports will take them further than their studies.
Secondly, it’s evident there’s a lot of blame to go around. Superintendent Marc Gousse, who is the ultimate authority at the school, was aware of the situation and should have provided better guidance to high school Principal Jon Ross and Athletic Director Marc Sawyer. All three should have been stronger in their convictions to impose the full suspensions, rather than caving to parental pressure. Parents themselves should have allowed the administrators to impose the suspension penalty as called for by the code of conduct. A resulting probe of the incident found parents to be at the heart of the issue, in fact. Lastly, school board members should have defended the actions of the administrators and the board-approved code of conduct. They should have reached out to the protesting parents (their constituents) and made them understand why the suspensions were important and why lifting them would have sent a bad message to kids.
Thirdly, the flap has revealed the need for the community to consider a citizen-generated recall process for elected representatives. Longtime resident and radio personality Ray Richardson is calling for the ordinance change, which would require petitioners to gather signatures from at least 10 percent of the last gubernatorial electorate. The recall ordinance, if Richardson is successful in gathering 1,216 signatures, would likely be put on the November ballot at the earliest.
Richardson has made no secret that his target is Suzanne Joyce, a longtime school board member who has ruffled feathers with her hands-on advocacy for her high school-aged children within the last year. In one situation, she was accused – and later cleared – of interfering in a police investigation of a male teacher having inappropriate relations with a student. During last fall’s student-athlete suspensions, which involved her son, Joyce is said to have used her position as a school board member to appeal directly to the superintendent. Most parents would appeal to the person who suspended their child, the athletic director in this case, not the superintendent.
If successful, all elected representatives in Westbrook would be subject to a recall process. Other communities have recall procedures, and Westbrook voters should have the right, too.
While Joyce is being singled out for recall, we should remember she has much company in what many consider a sour experience for Westbrook. All those affiliated with the operation of the schools should keep in mind – and perhaps this suspension debacle has taught them – that they are beholden to all parents and children and voters in the district. They need to treat everyone the same. They can’t let themselves be swayed by a school board member, overzealous parent or even students seeking special favor or exceptions to the rules. Their credibility and that of the school and community is on the line.
–John Balentine, managing editor