SWAMPSCOTT — School officials courted controversy last night when they gathered parents to sign onto their anti-drug and -alcohol policy. While barring the media from what was already a controversial meeting, they earned resentment from some when they refused to let parents speak.
The extraordinary pressure mounted to get parents there — the school threatened to bar the children of absent parents from sports and clubs — had already created national headlines. Principal Layne Millington and Superintendent Lynne Celli justified the tactic by citing an alarming level of drug and alcohol use in the school.
Celli made it clear prior to the meeting that parents would not be invited to speak. She also explained the decision to bar the media, saying, "This is for parents."
Because he is a parent of a Swampscott High School freshman, Salem News reporter Ethan Forman could not be barred. However, at one point, a plainclothes detective tried to kick him out, saying it was a private meeting.
A video created by school officials and the Swampscott Drug, Alcohol and Youth Risk Behavior Task Force was shown, including scenes of students holding up handwritten signs like: "52 percent of us have reported smoking marijuana." Stories of young people lost to substance abuse were also included.
"We have seen an increase in drug and alcohol use at a younger age than we are used to," Swampscott Detective Rose Cheever said in the video.
The video was shown at both meetings. For space reasons — the parking lot filled to overflowing — ninth- and 10th-grade parents met first, followed by 11th and 12.
At the first meeting, Millington explained that he'd taken action after police reports of student substance abuse landed on his desk. Now the new chemical health policy, previously applied only to athletes, will affect all students "365 days of the year," on and off school grounds.
The use of drugs or alcohol will cost a student the right to engage in extracurricular activities for a year and will require participation in a drug or alcohol program.
The school has no intention of going out into the community to enforce the policy, the principal said, but will deal with students "whose behaviors are brought to our attention," either from the police or, occasionally, online via Facebook.
Millington said this was not an attempt to tell parents how to raise their kids and discussed techniques parents could use to deter youthful misbehavior.
A sampling of opinion after the meeting found some parents grateful that the school is alert to the dangers of substance abuse at the high school.
"It's good to know that they will watch out for the students," Christina Vu said. "That they will be careful with them."
But there was also disappointment at the process.
One parent, Ronald Brooks, was told to sit and remain silent or face arrest, when he complained that the policy wasn't widely circulated prior to meeting. "Could you listen to us?" he asked.
"The police came over," said his wife, Judith, "and told him to sit down or they'd have him arrested for disorderly conduct."
Having made their presentation, she added, officials told the parents in effect "to shut up and go home."
Despite Millington's assurances, Judith Brooks sees the schools trying to usurp the job of parents. Obtaining a copy of the policy last Friday, she said, "It took our breath away."
Before the first meeting, the superintendent promised that nothing newsworthy would be said and pointed to her willingness to answer press questions.
"We were out front on the story last week," Celli said.
Added School Committee member Glenn Paster, "We're looking to keep the event as calm as possible."
Celli also worried that there wouldn't be space enough for the media. The auditorium was not filled, however.
Several public officials attended, including state Sen. Tom McGee, D-Lynn; state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead; and District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who was scheduled to speak at the second meeting.
"It was OK," mom Julia Gorman said as she left the school, but she added that she wasn't "stunned" by anything she heard. "I know what teenagers do. The school is foolish to think parents don't know what's going on."
She added that she resented "a little" being forced to attend.
"It was useless," said parent Gina Cordy, who is nonetheless encouraged that school officials are aware of the problem and trying to address it. "But I thought there should have been some back and forth."
Ellen Christy of Nahant shook her head, noting the schools used "a little brute force" to get parents there. But she added, "I didn't resent it. (School officials) felt strongly about it."
On the other hand, she acknowledged deep concerns about the level of drug and alcohol use in Swampscott schools. At one point, parents were told of multiple drug deaths among former Swampscott students over a period of years.
"Really, I'm a little afraid of what's going on here," Christy said. She is considering taking her daughter out of the Swampscott schools.
For her part, Brooks is hoping to organize parents to force school officials to revisit the policy. "We've been organizing all weekend ... to see who has the courage to stand up."