(Names will not be used throughout the story to protect those talking with the Press.)
On Feb. 13, a set of incriminating pictures, which showed students holding beer cans, came into the possession of a faculty member after school hours. The faculty member had gone to Corner Drug to pick up pictures designated for the yearbook. The picture envelope was labeled with a students name/yearbook which is customary. Upon opening the pack of pictures back at school, the faculty member discovered the incriminating pictures and handed the pictures over to the administration.
Never having such a situation arise before, the administration contacted the Minnesota State High School League to check the policy procedure and what steps they needed to follow. After the first bell rang Friday morning, 8:15 a.m., the administration started talking with students.
“We gave the matter due process,” the administration said. “We called students who were pictured into the office, one by one, asking them if they knew anything about the pictures. Many students admitted they were at the New Year’s Eve party and some denied the issue.
“When it is the first time to notify 18 students, it makes the process harder. We wanted to make sure the stories from the first student to the last didn’t change. Thus the students were not allowed to return to their classrooms or talk to each other,” the administration said. By 11:45 a.m., the administration knew they had to move on as it was lunch time for the students and Sweet Fest coronation was scheduled for 12:30 p.m.
“I was impressed with the honesty and integrity of many of the students as they knew they had done something wrong and admitted it,” the administration added.
After questioning the students, the administration started calling the parents. They did not want to notify the parents until they knew themselves the entire story. The administration is not legally obligated to call parents before questioning of students takes place. All the parents were called at one point or another on Friday afternoon or on Saturday and Sunday if they could not be reached on Friday.
On Monday, Feb. 17, a parents’ meeting was held at the school to answer any questions parents had regarding the issue. Over the weekend, the parents had heard their child’s side of the story, and on Monday they learned the administration’s version of the incident.
Following any incident involving students at school, students are required to meet with the school counselor. “On the most part, the students are accepting responsibility for what they did,” the counselor said.
“The staff stands behind the administration knowing it was a tough thing to do. We feel they did the right thing. Parents need to know their children have to be accountable for their mistakes. We are all human and need to admit our mistakes, grow from them, and move on with life,” the counselor said. “When we sign a contract, be it for a home loan or student eligibility, people need to stand behind their word or this world would be chaos.”
One student’s family sought a temporary court order to allow the student to compete in post season tournament action. On Thursday, Feb. 20, the school administration was in Stearns County District Court answering that court order. The court ruled on behalf of the school and Minnesota State High School League. That student was ineligible to compete from Friday, Feb. 21 through Thursday, Feb. 27.
Students and parents throughout the state are given athletic eligibility information at the beginning of the school year. On the checklist for student eligibility, students agree not to use tobacco or alcoholic beverages, use, consume, have in possession, buy, sell or give away any other controlled substance, including steroids.
In the general rules of the high school league, it outlines the penalties if the rules are broken:
1) First violation: after confirmation of the violation, the student shall lose eligibility for two contests or two weeks of that season, whichever is greater. If there are fewer than two events remaining in that sport, the loss of eligibility will continue into the next season in that sport.
2) Second violation: after confirmation of the violation, the student is not eligible to compete for six interscholastic contests or three weeks, whichever is greater.
3) Third violation: after confirmation of violation, the student can not play for 12 interscholastic contests or four weeks, whichever is greater.
For students not competing in winter sports, their penalty starts when their sport season begins.
“We are always concerned with the number of violations. If a particular student has a problem, we are concerned that he or she receives proper help,” the administration said.
In talking with parents about the incident, one family said they were in favor of the school endorsing the high school league rules. They felt the administration handled the situation well. “As parents we often make judgments, sometimes difficult ones under deadline pressure. I feel the school did the best they could. I don’t feel the problem is cured, but hopefully students understand they made a commitment when they signed the contract at the beginning of the year. Students need to learn what they sign, goes. The school did their homework before moving on the issue. I hope our student learned a lesson from it,” one parent said.
Another parent agreed with the one above that the school handled the situation correctly by calling the high school league. “Sure people complained about keeping the students isolated in a room. I don’t know how else the administration could have handled it at that point. The administration did not want the students comparing notes and changing their stories.
“I understand where it would be difficult to call that many parents in a short period of time. It was unfortunate timing that the pictures came out prior to Sweet Fest coronation and the start of tournament action. The administration has to deal with the problems as they arise,” parent number two said. “Rules are rules, if students are caught, they have to suffer the consequences,” they added.
Parent number three disagreed with the others the Press talked with. “The situation was handled poorly. It was horrible for the students to be locked up in the basement and not allowing them to call home or talk to others,” she said.
“The administration was inappropriate in what they did. They can’t treat children like criminals. I feel the students lost a lot of trust in the school and their elders. I believe my children over the administration.... I think there are a lot of things happening at the school that parents are not aware of,” the third parent stressed.
“When we received the phone call from the school, all they said was that our children were written up. No explanation. I do feel this incident was a good learning experience for all, and an awakening for many in the community. No matter what happens in the future, I feel the parents need to be involved from the beginning,” parent number three added.
Parent number four supports the no drinking policy for underage kids but feels strongly that the student’s and parent’s rights were violated in the pursuit of the guilty.
“The problem with this particular event was the way in which our administrators pursued the guilty and innocent. The interrogation process was intentionally intimidating and threatening. Basic civil and human rights were disregarded. Through several discussions with school personnel, I have been informed that once a student enters a school, the school assumes parental rights. As a result administrators can: 1) hold students against their will, four hours in the case of several students; 2) prevent students from talking in the holding area (but allowed to console); 3) not allow students or give them the option to call or speak to parents; 4) assume that students were astute enough to know they did not have to incriminate themselves or others; 5) use false states for reasons of entrapment; 6) withhold lunch due to an unfortunate oversight,” parent four said.
“Basically we’re learning that students do not have the same civil and human rights that you and I have. Not one parent was notified prior to the investigation. I would have like to have given my student counsel or at least informed him/her of their rights. In addition, coaches were not given the professional courtesy of knowledge of the action being taken, resulting in some very unfortunate consequences,” parent four added.
“Ultimately many of us parents would like legal clarification of what rights students and parents have when dealing with our schools. We are receiving mixed messages. The least our school board owes parents and students is a thorough independent and unbiased investigation of our rights, and the process that took place. Students deserve to be heard!” parent four said.
A member of the administration has kept a list of students and former students who have died by accident, suicide, drowning or health reasons. In the past 10 years, 24 young people died.
Within the last two years more than 135 parents met in the high school cafeteria asking for direction to make Paynesville a safer place for their students. “I’m thankful no one was killed as a result of this party,” the administration said.
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