HARRINGTON — Attendance at an off-campus drinking party has left 33 Narraguagus High School students — more than 10 percent of the student body — banned from all after-school activities for the rest of the academic year.
The SAD 37 board’s decision prompted 200 people, many of them parents, to show up for an emotional public meeting Monday night. Hours later, a spray-painted message on the school’s front doors led to canceled classes Tuesday.
But the decision to prohibit the 33 students from participating in anything but their scheduled classes at the Harrington school may be reconsidered.
The board Monday night appointed a 15-member committee of parents, teachers, administrators, students and community members to develop a proposal that would allow the suspended students to earn back some of their privileges.
The brouhaha began Nov. 5, when a group of students was caught drinking at a private home in Cherryfield.
Maine state police broke up the party about 9:30 that night and sent one boy to the hospital, where he was treated for alcohol poisoning.
None of the students was arrested. But Trooper Barry Curtis said an adult in the home, the father of one of the students, will be charged with allowing a place for juveniles to consume alcohol.
On Nov. 17, the school board voted 9-3, with one abstention, in favor of the suspensions. Two board members were absent.
The decision bars the students from participating in any school clubs, athletic teams or social events such as dances. They will be permitted only to attend graduation ceremonies in the spring.
Principal Peter Doak told those who attended Monday night’s meeting that he had recommended the punishment to the board and that he would not hesitate to make the same recommendation if the situation arose again.
The principal reiterated his position during an interview Tuesday, saying that in the year before he arrived at Narraguagus, state police were called to the school 46 times and that the Washington County Sheriff’s Department had been there so many times, it had lost count.
“Kids were fighting, starting fires in trash cans,” he said. “Basically, the kids ran the school.”
As the board Monday began to explore proposals that would allow the students to earn back some of their privileges at the 291-student high school, some angry parents asked members to explain what right they had to discipline their children for something that happened after school hours on private property.
SAD 37 Superintendent David Beal said the school handbook says students are ambassadors of Narraguagus High School at all times and wherever they go.
Rules apply to all students whose conduct at any time or place “directly interferes with the operations, discipline or general welfare of the school,” Beal said, reading from the handbook.
One father asked why he had not been notified by state police or the school that his child was at the party. He said the school should have notified the parents before taking disciplinary action against the students.
Donald Brown, a Bangor lawyer representing two of the parents whose children were punished, asked what the school board evaluated as facts before making its decision.
Board Chairman Steven Pagels said the information was presented in executive session and thus could not be discussed in public.
Robert Carpenter, a parent of one of the suspended students, said some of the students were not drinking at the party. Carpenter asked why the state police would have allowed some students to drive other students home if police believed the drivers had been drinking.
“So, those kids were severely punished just for being there,” Carpenter said. “What are you teaching these children?”
Carpenter said after the meeting that although the school requires athletes to sign contracts saying they understand they will be put off teams for six months if they use alcohol, none of the students was under contract at the time of the party.
Peter Duston, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Cherryfield, said he is not opposed to punishment, but that what the board did was detrimental to the classroom atmosphere at the school.
“There were 33 kids suspended and a few more who got away,” Duston said. “Now, you have 40 angry kids and their friends who are angry at the administration and their teachers.”
But teacher Helene Hammond disagreed, saying her students had been as well-behaved as ever since the board’s Nov. 17 vote.
The crowd Monday night gave a standing ovation to Brenda Fickett, who told the board she felt her parental rights had been stripped away and that her child was interrogated and disciplined without her knowledge.
Fickett and several others referred to their own experiences as students when anyone caught with alcohol or other drugs on school property could be immediately expelled, but, she said, drinking parties on private property were handled by parents or law enforcement.
Turning to one of the state troopers who was involved in the Nov. 5 raid, Fickett told him when he found her child at a drinking party that she expected him to call her, not the school.
Trooper Curtis said in an interview after the meeting that state police had not reported the incident to the school.
Principal Doak said after the meeting that he learned of the Nov. 5 drinking party from the chairman of the school board. Doak said he interviewed students who, other students told him, had been at the party. Some said they had been drinking, but other students said they had not, he said.
Several people, including board member Betsy Jaegerman and board members who had voted against the nonacademic suspensions or were unable to attend the board’s Nov. 17 meeting, said that taking away a young person’s social life was not helpful. And, they said, punishment was appropriate but that isolation was particularly injurious to those who had substance abuse problems.
On Monday night, board members Cynthia Kelley and Earl Tyler Jr. moved to rescind the Nov. 17 decision to suspend the students. But the proposal failed to gain the required two-thirds vote.
Board member Verrill Worcester Jr. then moved to appoint the 15-member committee to consider ways to allow the students a chance to earn back some of their privileges.
“Call it good time,” Worcester said. “Even if you’re behind bars, you get time off for good behavior.”
The committee will meet and report back to the board Dec. 8.
Meanwhile, Doak said he canceled classes Tuesday after a carrier for the Bangor Daily News arrived at the school just before 5 a.m. to find the front doors emblazoned with a spray-painted message that read “Boom — 10 a.m. — Beware — Boom.”
Doak said other messages and symbols, including the inscription “666,” were scrawled in several locations on the outside walls of the school buildings.