School board debates student privacy, extracurricular activity

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FARMINGTON – What happens when a student involved in an after school activity, such as a sports team, commits a crime?

The logical consequence, voiced by members of the community, employees of the local school district and school board directors, is that the student shouldn’t participate in the activity. After all, these students represent the entire school and participation in extracurricular activities is considered by many to be a privilege.

If the crime occurs within the school district, administrators say, they have many options. However, what about alleged criminal activity outside of the school, or during the summer vacation?

“It can be very difficult to investigate,” Mt. Blue High School Principal Monique Poulin said. “It’s tough to make a good decision without all of the facts.”

These questions were taken up by the MSAD 9 school board at Tuesday night’s meeting, provoking an hour-long debate and a 7-7 tie straw vote. The heart of the question: should the school require athletes, or other school program participants, believed to have been involved in criminal activity to release private information to the school’s administration?

Students are, in many cases, minors and are forwarded special protections under the law. School administrators cannot, for instance, merely call the District Attorney’s Office or local police department and ask to see case files. Information often arrives via rumor and over a long period of time; a case from arrest to conviction can take months.

In an effort to give additional guidance to administrators like Poulin, the MSAD 9 School Board’s policy subcommittee met three times over the course of the last month to alter the existing policy. That policy states that students who participate in any crime, whether juvenile or adult, cannot continue to utilize their school’s extracurricular activities for an undefined amount of time.

The revision adds language that helps set parameters for that undefined amount of time. However, more controversially to the school board, the revision also adds a requirement that students suspected of being involved with a crime must agree to authorize law enforcement to release “any discoverable information about the student’s alleged conduct.”

That information, the policy revision goes on to say, would “not become part of the student’s education record and shall be used solely for the investigation under this provision.”

“I, [Student],” the release form reads, “hereby authorize the office of the District Attorney… to release to the Principal of [Name of School] all records of the case in which I am charged for the offense(s) of [Crime]….”

If the student, along with his or her parents, refuses to sign the release form then the student is banned from extracurricular activities for a year.

Director Claire Andrews of Farmington, who serves on the policy subcommittee, said that the release form was designed to be used in rare situations.

“We are merely requesting that students release the same information the police have to the school, so someone can’t come forward and say ‘well, I’m not going to tell you anything,'” Andrews said. “I do not want to see our students not stand up for what they’ve done.”

“There have been a couple of instances,” Director Yvette Robinson of Farmington, agreed, “where this policy would have been helpful. Our admin team doesn’t have much ability to find out what happened in some cases.”

Other directors, however, disagreed.

“Is there no presumption of innocence?” Director Neil Stinneford of Weld, asked. “I have some serious problems with this policy rewrite.” He added that one member of the community had already contacted him warning of the potential of a lawsuit.

Superintendent Michael Cormier said that he had run the revision by legal counsel and said that they thought it was “enforceable.” Courts have long held up a school’s ability to somewhat curtail the rights of its students, from free speech to locker searches.

Still, Chairman Raymond Glass of Farmington, said that he still found the release form aspect disturbing.

“I feel so uncomfortable about asking a student to sign his or her rights away,” he said. “There’s something that just feels so wrong with that.”

The directors then held a straw vote asking whether they were inclined to either support or not support the policy revision. An actual up-or-down vote will not take place until the next meeting, at the policy’s second reading.

The vote was seven in favor and seven against. It would take 10 directors to pass the revision.

“That’s a big help,” Cormier said, provoking a round of laughter. “This is a tough one, and it’s a tough one on many levels.”

At least two directors indicated that if the release form aspect of revision was dropped, they would be inclined to support the other changes. The policy will come back for another vote at the next meeting, unmodified, and likely fail to pass. The subcommittee could then re-look at the revisions at a later date.

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