The topic was City Honors, but unlike most Board of Education discussions involving the city's top academic school, the subject matter was painful Wednesday: widespread drug use by students on a field trip two weeks ago.
The board spent two hours discussing the matter, quizzing Principal Paul A. Lafornara and Student Council President Gerald Williams. Williams won praise; Lafornara did not.
Asked if he was satisfied with the actions of Lafornara, who interpreted district policies as ruling out suspension of the offending students in favor of less-punitive steps, Superintendent James Harris responded, "It's too early to tell."
Moreover, Harris declined to rule out possible suspensions, again saying, "It's too early to tell." Board member Jack Coyle of the Park District said he felt students were dealt with too leniently, reinforcing the perception that there's a double standard for City Honors.
"If it had happened at a neighborhood school like South Park or Kensington, there would have been more severe consequences," he said.
School Board President Marlies A. Wesolowski said she, too, was uncomfortable with the handling of the situation.
"It was a calamity of errors," she said. "Mistakes were made by everyone all down the line."
Lafornara told the board he did "what I felt was best for students."
Paul Buchanan, vice president of the school's parent organization, told the board he supported the staff's decisions.
"The parents in the main support the principal and faculty," he said.
Buchanan added, however, that parents want the culprits to be punished.
The drug and alcohol use occurred Oct. 8, the first night of a three-day camping trip of 216 seniors at Allegany State Park. According to accounts by Lafornara and Williams:
At about 9:45 p.m., two chaperones smelled marijuana in the woods near the campsite. Students were called to an assembly at the mess hall, where faculty members asked violators to come forward. None did.
Williams then asked to address the students, and it was agreed that all the adults would leave. Williams led the students through what he described as a "heart-wrenching two-hour discussion."
"I said this is a problem that is going to reflect on the entire City Honors community. Everybody is going to be hurt in some way, and we had an obligation to do what's right."
After midnight, 82 students stepped forward and admitted using drugs or drinking. The adults were called back into the room, and the 82 again stepped forward. An additional 10 did the following day, when Lafornara arrived at camp.
He was faced with deciding whether to employ a section of district drug policy calling for automatic suspensions, contacting police and possible transfer of students to other schools; or another section advising a more therapeutic approach for students who turn themselves in. Lafornara chose the latter.
Harris termed Lafornara's actions a "judgment call" and one that several board members disagreed with.
At-large board member James Williams was most critical of Lafornara's handling of the situation, declaring that student offenders "got away with it. There will be no consequences."
Lafornara said that's not the case, noting a foreign-exchange student has been sent home and student athletes have been removed from teams. Offending students have been told they must make amends in the form of school projects and/or community service. Other consequences will be imposed as well, Lafornara said.
Gerald Williams, the student leader, said the episode has been a "nightmare" for the school community, exposing Honors to "scrutiny and contempt."
He lamented that "everyone is trying to turn it into a race issue," and Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve told the board earlier in the meeting that all of the students involved were white. Gerald Williams said, however, that both white and minority students were involved, although most were white.
Board members agreed that the conduct of Williams and some other student leaders provides a silver lining to what one member described as a "terrible situation."
"Young man, I am so proud of you," Jan Peters of the Central District told Williams.