Martha’s Vineyard school authorities have confirmed the exclusion of four high school students for six months over alleged drug infractions, although the exact nature of the offenses remains vague and contentious.
The four were barred from the school for the remainder of this school year and the first three months of next year, as a result of an investigation which began in early April.
According to the superintendent of schools, Dr. James H. Weiss, who this week completed a review of the cases, they involved a small amount of marijuana.
But a parent of one of the excluded students said the decision to exclude was made on the basis of hearsay evidence, that no specific time or date of infraction was established, that her child had no drugs, and that other students escaped penalty, despite being implicated by the same informant.
The parent, who declined to be named because an appeal process is in progress, claimed a number of students who lied about their intention to acquire drugs had escaped punishment, while those who told the truth were punished.
Whether this is an accurate portrayal of events is impossible at this stage to establish; high school principal Stephen Nixon would not discuss specifics of the matter.
He did say, however, that the parent’s claims, as related to him by the Gazette were “not 100 per cent accurate at all,” and pointed out that a student did not have to be in actual possession of drugs in order to merit exclusion or expulsion.
In the version of events first presented to the Gazette, a group of students — perhaps as many as 20 — had pooled money to buy marijuana. But they did not receive any drugs. Instead, a list of the names of those who had contributed funds was supplied to school authorities.
When questioned, most of the students denied involvement, while four who admitted to having paid money were excluded from school.
The person who provided that information also provided the name of one parent, who made further allegations.
She claimed the student who supplied the list of names had done it “so he wouldn’t have to leave the Island when his foster parents were going to boot him.
“He [the informant] has dropped out of school and now lives in a group house. He is not a reliable source,” she said.
“It became a witch hunt. They’ve taken these measures without dates or times. There was never contraband taken from any of these students.
“This is all just based on hearsay. It’s third, fourth party, he said-she said stuff they’re basing this all on. That’s all on the record in the tape, on the record, in these hearings [conducted by high school authorities].”
The parent claims school authorities threatened the students under suspicion by referring to surveillance. Mr. Nixon denied the claim.
The parent said: “Some kids knew to lie, some told the truth. Now, it’s an exclusion for two quarters. Essentially they’re out of the education process. These are just draconian punitive measures. We’ve had to seek online courses so we don’t lose our credits for the year.”
She said the police were never called in. Mr. Nixon refused to say if the police were contacted by the school. Dr. Weiss said the high school worked “closely with police,” but was unaware “at this point if there is any police action as a result of these cases.
“Their standard of proof is different from ours,” he said.
Mr. Nixon would not comment on what he termed specific, individual infractions.
“All I can tell you is the school has and always will have a policy that is a combination of state law and what is in our handbook. The policy is followed, procedurally, from beginning to end, exactly the same in every case.
“I don’t handle it from the start.
“It starts wherever the contact level is. Hypothetically if a teacher thinks there is something wrong with a student, the teacher passes it along to the assistant principal. The assistant principal does the first investigation.
“They talk with the student, they talk with the parent. They establish facts. They interview other witnesses, students. They impose discipline. They can suspend. If it’s a lengthy suspension, if it’s something that according to the handbook attaches to a possible expulsion, then it comes before me.
“Then I listen to the evidence from the assistant principal, from the parents, from anyone else who happens to be there. Then I make a ruling, all the way up to or including expulsion.
“If the parents aren’t happy with that, there’s an appeal process to the superintendent,” Mr. Nixon said.
That is where this case is now. Mr. Weiss has reviewed the cases and this week sent letters to the parents of the four students, telling them the penalties would stand. They can then, within 10 days, appeal to the school committee, and then to the courts.
Mr. Nixon would not say if the matter had been pursued as a result of someone coming to the school with a list of names. Nor would he say if other students had escaped punishment simply by denying the allegation against them.
He also declined to comment on whether any drugs were located. Possession, was, in any case, not relevant.
“There are four distinct drug classifications in our handbook and under the law. There is [possession of] paraphernalia, there is under the influence, there is possession. And the fourth is distribution. And the penalty is incremental in all those cases.
“Buying and distribution, you don’t have to have pot on you. [It’s enough] if you make a contract and exchange money for something,” he said, adding:
“Under the influence, there’s no drugs involved. Paraphernalia, there’s no drugs involved. But they all involve some level of suspension.”
As for the educational options of excluded students, he said:
“It depends on the situation. If a student is say a special education student, under the law the special education student has to be tutored. The extent of penalty varies as well. If you are not special education, we are not obligated to do anything. What we do is give parents all their options.
“You can go to the charter school, you can go to Falmouth Academy. We also supply parents with schools that offer things online, where you can continue your credits.
“You can do tutoring, home schooling, you can go to another school, do online classes and the duration is not of such magnitude that those credits cannot be made up, and in any way hinder the kid from graduating with their class.”