GROTON — Fallout from last year’s suspension of four high school students is still dogging the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. Parents continue to express frustration at the way their children were treated after they were accused of possessing illicit drugs on school property.
“I first heard about it when my son called me after he was held by school authorities,” said Leo Manley. “I went into the school and the dean of students asked for my permission to search my son but I said no. I took my son home that day but, unfortunately, by then they had a witch hunt going.”
Manley’s son, a junior at the time of the incident, was one of four high school students who were caught last October on school grounds in possession of marijuana, subjected to disciplinary review, and subsequently suspended from classes until the end of the semester.
High School Principal Shelley Marcus Cohen had recommended expulsion for at least one of the four students but was later overruled by school Superintendent Alan Genovese.
But the superintendent’s review and reduction of the most extreme of the sentences has done little to satisfy parents.
“What bothers me is that our kids are going to have their whole future with this on their records,” declared Manley, a resident of West Street in Groton. “All for a real minor event that will go on to affect them in college. Is this where we want to take our kids? Not me.”
According to Manley, the whole incident involving his son was mishandled by school district administrators from the very beginning.
“They told me that they saw my son walk by a camera up an access road with three other people and then walk back,” Manley said. “I asked if there was a rule against going up the access road and I was told that no, there wasn’t, but that they were doing an investigation. I told them that if they were having two adult males doing the investigation, it was two too many people working in the school department.
“What I was told was that they separated these kids and some of them were interviewed between four and six hours at a time without their parents being there or any kind of representation,” Manley said. “As parents, we saw no evidence, statements or transcripts afterward. So what it comes down to is that the school administration can charge my kid with less evidence than the police are required to have.
“Later, when we went to a hearing with high school Principal Shelly Marcus-Cohen, she said to us ‘I am the judge, jury and executioner because that is my right,'” Manley related. “I replied that if that’s what an educator’s job is, then I wanted her to spend more time educating and less time investigating.
“It’s just so frustrating to me,” Manley said. “Groton-Dunstable has a record for the most expulsions, suspensions and exclusions in the area.”
Denying that she ever said anything of the sort Manley claimed, Cohen described herself in terms detailed in the district’s disciplinary policies.
“I am the hearing officer in these matters,” Cohen said. “But the bottom line here is that there will be no drugs on this campus and that’s what we’re working with our students to achieve.
“What happens when there’s an investigation is that we do call students down and we do meet with them,” said Cohen of the procedure. “But this kind of thing is not a police interrogation. At no time is a student held against their will. We do call parents, though, for wrongdoing of any sort.”
School Superintendent Alan Genovese said that due to legal and privacy concerns, it was difficult for the administration to address Manley’s claims directly.
“The district is at a disadvantage in answering such claims because it needs to continue to protect students’ privacy,” explained Genovese. “The fact that a parent wishes to present comments on certain issues puts me in a position where I can’t respond without creating some exposure to the district.”
Speaking in general terms, Genovese spoke about the district’s intentions in such instances and its determination to create a safe learning environment for students.
“Students are provided with their due process rights and we have the ability to question and search the students if we feel it is appropriate, without parents’ present,” Genovese said. “And we use that discretion very, very carefully. Every case that comes before the administration is slightly different. They are all thoroughly investigated and then a decision made as to the appropriate disciplinary action.
“Our high school has incredible students in it and a very talented and caring staff,” Genovese continued. “We hold ourselves accountable to fulfilling our obligation of reporting to the Department of Education of Elementary and Secondary Education all incidents that are reportable. I think our high school is as safe or safer than any school in the commonwealth. What we are not doing is looking the other way. If there’s a problem, then the high school administration is addressing it with the ultimate goal of keeping drugs and weapons out of our schools. I applaud the efforts of all the principals in the district as they work very hard, along with staff, to keep our schools a safe place for students.
“What I’ve been hearing from students and parents is that we need to be sure that we continue our efforts to keep students safe and not be influenced by the political interests of a few,” Genovese said. “We will soon be releasing the results of the youth risk behavior survey and look forward to working with parents to address the findings of this report.”
As for the incident at hand, it refuses to go away being kept before the public eye by angered parents and a recent meeting of the School Committee where members disagreed over bringing it up again at all or simply restricting discussion to a review of the district’s policies regarding student discipline.
“I think it’s a move in the right direction,” Manley said. “I think that’s the very least that they could do. But I’m not too happy about the fact that anything should be squashed. We should have transparent government. What are they hiding? They say they can’t talk about it because it’s for the safety of the children. I’m offended that parents are treated with no respect or dignity.”
Speaking truth to power, Manley said that he hoped his example would lend encouragement to other parents, not just those of students involved in the recent disciplinary action.
“By speaking out, I hope more parents will realize that they’re not alone if they have problems with the school administration,” Manley stated. “Let’s all step forward and take our schools back. We need to tell the administrators that they work for us and that we will not sit by while they try to destroy our children’s lives. We will not sit by and be silent.”
For his part, Genovese said that the district will continue efforts to reach out to the community and find ways to promote better understanding of its policies.
“As superintendent, I’m looking for the cooperation of the administration, the School Committee and parents in the community at large in developing a strategy to keep our schools safe,” Genovese concluded. “The majority of students in the district do not want drugs in their schools and they would like to see that kind of activity stopped.”