Adults question Orcas school’s handling of student athletes’ suspension

A handful of adults approached the school board about the district’s handling of a recent adult-hosted high school drinking party, for which 10 student athletes were suspended from their teams.

During the Nov. 15 meeting, Suzanne Morrisey read a statement in which she called the event a “coed drinking sleepover for minors” and said the school “used poor judgment,” disciplining “based on hearsay” and “a draconian system.” She called the school’s disciplinary process “a witch hunt,” saying it was “abusive” and “psychologically scarring to the children in your charge.”

Morrisey said she was upset by a letter she had received from a teacher, and board chair Janet Brownell called executive session to discuss it as a personnel matter.

After the board emerged, Kathy Jensen said she would like to see the current policy “re-written to allow for more judicious” handling. She questioned giving one person – the superintendent – the power to handle such infractions, recommending instead a panel including students, teachers and community members.

Candace Bodenhamer called Jensen’s idea “brilliant,” saying a committee should be part of the disciplinary process.

“These actions should be judged by their peers,” she said.

Last month Kline determined that 10 students had violated the terms of the 2011-12 “Athletic Handbook,” and as a result removed them from their football, soccer and volleyball teams for the rest of the fall season. They are the only students to face such disciplinary action this year.

By school policy, a meeting with the student, parents, principal, athletic director and coach must be held within three school days of an incident or report of an incident. The school committee must then meet within one day to determine consequences.

In an earlier story, superintendent Barbara Kline told the Sounder, “this went a little differently because some of the students talked to their parents and coaches already.”

Also at the board meeting, Randy Pence voiced his displeasure at superintendent Kline’s handling of the matter, asking, “What happens when Barbara Kline doesn’t follow this [school] policy?”

The board again called executive session to speak privately with Pence.

Morrissey’s husband Bob Phalan asked why Kline didn’t phone the police, saying, “There were laws being broken at an off-campus event. It’s not up to the school to investigate … This is not the Vatican. You’re not outside the law. ”

The board did not respond to public comment during its meeting.

“I felt sad, because clearly there are parents on every angle of this that are upset,” Brownell later told the Sounder. “We can’t go back in time. I think the best thing we can do is move forward … evaluate the athletic handbook and really start to be more healing.”

She said the board may consider a reply in executive session before its next public meeting.

“There were a lot of accusations thrown out in a very short time,” Brownell said. “We certainly take what any parent has to say to heart, and then we start looking at it from an objective point of view.”

Kline told the Sounder, “The hardest thing that parents have to do is to allow their kids to be accountable, and that’s a painful process … It’s hard to watch parents be that upset.”

Kline said she’s received numerous phone calls about the incident, many supportive, and feels positive discussion is being stimulated in the Orcas Island community.

“What we as a community expect from our children is an important conversation to have,” she said. “There’s been some discussion about whether the community is supporting this kind of behavior.”

Kline said a culture of accountability is “a gift the community gives to these kids.”

Board member Tony Ghazel told the Sounder, “I am concerned about children making wrong decisions that really affect them and their teammates … How do we remedy that? How do we instill in students that some of the decisions they make also affect others?”

He said the board is completely satisfied that Kline followed school policy, but in the light of community input the policy may be revisited this spring.

Brownell said Kline seemed to have followed school policy, adding, “We’re going to look into it a little bit more.”

Brownell said the athletic handbook could more clearly state the superintendent’s authority over school affairs. Board member Scott Lancaster said school policy allows the administration “to question regarding whatever rules they believe have been broken.”

Ghazel said phoning the sheriff about an off-campus event is beyond the school’s realm of responsibility.

“That’s a legal issue,” he said. “It opens up an area we really don’t want to go as a school.”

Regarding the school’s responsibility to contact law enforcement, Lancaster and Brownell declined to comment, and Kline could not be reached before the Sounder went to press.

Sheriff Rob Nou cannot yet identify the parent involved in hosting the party.