POTSDAM — Parents of Potsdam Central School students voiced their displeasure with school administrators during Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, saying the school used questionable methods to investigate students who attended a New Year’s Eve party where there was alcohol, leading to the suspension of about 15 students.
The party allegedly took place at a private residence and, according to village police and parents, police received a call about the party.
Officers arrived at the home and discovered there was alcohol, although they determined there was no danger to the safety of the minors at the party. Officers made sure any alcohol found was discarded.
Parents at Tuesday night’s meeting said they wanted to know how the names of minors were released to the school as part of the investigation. Some of the parents alleged the school administration had pitted student against student to get the information.
School Superintendent Joann M. Chambers, who was present at Tuesday night’s meeting, and Potsdam Police Lt. Michael Ames each declined to comment on the situation, telling the Times it was a personnel issue.
Deborah Dudley, one of the parents to address the school board at the meeting, said names of minors were in the report and she was told by the police information officer that anyone who wanted access to the report had to request it through the proper channels.
“Police told me they were unaware that the names of minors had been accessed and used by the school until parents came in to complain,” she told the Times. “I received a redacted copy with all names removed.”
Another parent said the person who called in the complaint to police had affiliations with the school and they made a second call to the school, reporting the incident.
Parent Gale Anderson told the board that school officials attempted to use the list of student names who were at the party to pit students against one another and get additional student names, and the students were punished under “dubious circumstances.”
“You may be able to get your ‘gotcha’ moment with these few students, but the message you are sending is invade, lie, don’t cooperate, and don’t trust authority,” Ms. Anderson said. “I asked one administrator what the students might learn and I was told, “maybe they shouldn’t always believe the police.’ Well, we don’t teach that in our household ... I’m requesting that these suspensions be promptly dropped. Use this as an educational tool by a school assembly clearly spelling out the policy. This should not go on one more day.”
The students were punished as first-time offenders under Level A violations in the school’s Code of Conduct, Section 5205 Eligibility For Extracurricular Activities, which pertains to students in grades 7 through 12. They were suspended from participating in school activities for 45 school days.
The section of the code states “(i)t is understood that the school administration will not go looking for student violations during school breaks and in the summer. However, when a violation of the code is egregious and endangers the health and well-being of other students, the District may exercise its legal authority to impose appropriate consequences per this policy.”
Kim Jones, another parent who addressed the board, said she thought the policy has not been adequately communicated to the faculty, students and parents in grades 7 through 12.
“In fact, until yesterday, Policy 5205 was not even included in the student handbook that has been posted on the website for the past two-and-a-half years,” Mrs. Jones said. “This is supposed to be the student’s resource. Within the past few days, a new 2019-2020 student handbook was posted on this website. It is still not in the middle school handbook, even though these rules apply to seventh- and eighth-graders.”
But parents said that was not how the investigation was conducted, as the school used nothing but the names of the students that were gathered at the party and did not follow police advice that there was not egregious behavior endangering the health and well-being of other students.
Ms. Dudley was one of more than a handful of parents who told the board that they were not disputing the punishment of her child, who she said was at the party, but were troubled by the school’s investigation and disciplinary actions against students.
The school officials broke the rules so that they could punish students for breaking the rules, she said.
“What I find most concerning is that school officials violated police protocol to access confidential information in a police report without the consent of Potsdam PD,” she said. “The school disregarded the confidentiality and legal protection of minors when they accessed the names of our children and despite the objections of police officials, the school used the information to justify the investigation, the delivery of a guilty verdict for every kid in the report and applied suspensions across the board, before ever contacting parents.”
“Shouldn’t accountability go both ways,” Ms. Dudley said. “I object to this double standard . . . Somebody clearly wanted these kids punished and all it took was one phone call to the school on the Monday after break for administrators to contradict their own assurances that they don’t look for violations over break. But what are the consequences for school officials when they fail to adhere to their own code of conduct. How can kids and parents trust this process.”