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INDIANA: School directors discipline six students

by CHAUNCEY ROSS on April 04, 2013 11:00 AM

The Indiana Area School District board of directors early today approved the discipline of six students after conducting many hours of closed-door hearings and deliberating in a private executive session.

The students were among seven Indiana Area Senior High School students — five seniors and two juniors — who had been cited with violation of Pennsylvania’s underage drinking statute while attending a state convention of a student organization March 9 in Hershey. That’s according to Diane Williamson, the grandmother of one of the accused students, who was among nine spectators who attended the board’s brief public session.

In accordance with the Sunshine Law, the school district advertised the special public meeting to begin at 10 p.m. Wednesday for consideration of the result of discipline hearings.

The board conducted private hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the meeting agenda.

The hearings and deliberations extended beyond the expected time, and the board opened the doors for its public session at 1:04 a.m.

The directors conducted one vote, accepted comment from Williamson and a second district resident, and adjourned at 1:10 a.m.

The students subject to discipline were identified only by numbers: 1213-3, 1213-5, 1213-6, 1213-7, 1213-8 and 1213-9.

The board’s motion did not specify the sanctions that were imposed.

According to the district’s current student attendance, behavior guidelines and discipline policy handbook, student use of alcoholic beverages — including furnishing, selling, possessing or being under the influence — is classified as a Level IV violation, the most serious of the various grades of offenses identified in the handbook.

The broad range of possible disciplinary measures includes suspension, expulsion, criminal prosecution and “other board or administrative action which results in appropriate disciplinary action.”

The discipline was approved on a vote of 6 to 1.

Board President Thomas Harley, Vice President Walter Schroth and members Hilliary Creely, David Ferguson, Robert Gongaware and Brian Petersen voted in favor.

Director Robert Werner voted no, and said only “no comment” as he exited the meeting.

Board members Alison Billon and Diana Paccapaniccia were absent.

No board members commented on the action, and Harley instructed spectators not to identify specific students or incidents in their public comments. Harley interrupted Williamson while she addressed the board and admonished her when she named her grandson.

“You’ve taken the wind out of my sails,” Williamson responded. She told the board of her grandson’s personal accomplishments, such as first-aid skills he has acquired, and told the board she believed alcohol use should not be categorized with acts of violence, such as assault, in the discipline policy.

She also asked if the personal impact on people was being considered.

“It’s very, very shattering for the families. … I can’t tell you because nobody writes about what’s going on inside with the families,” Williamson said. “You have a mother who can’t sleep … and a grandmother who is very upset.”

Attorneys Michael Delaney and Ryan Fritz, of Indiana, attended the meeting but did not comment. They earlier took part in the disciplinary hearings as representatives of one of the students facing sanction, and then waited more than 1οΎ½ hours with other spectators outside the meeting room while the board deliberated the students’ fate.

A 17-year-old Indiana Area Senior High School student, who identified himself as one of those subject to discipline, also waited with his mother to hear the board’s vote, then met privately with acting district Superintendent Dale Kirsch following the public meeting.

District resident Eric Palmer also addressed the board in the public comment session.

Palmer, a candidate for election to the school board this year, said some district residents told him they were suspicious of the advertised 10 p.m. start time for a public board meeting.

“I received many questions today. ‘Do they even want people to come? Are they doing something wrong, or trying to hide something?’” Palmer said. “I could not answer their questions.

“In a day when the common citizen is already leery of public officials, I would hope that if a similar situation would arise in the future, you’d not only think about the functional aspect of scheduling your meeting but also about the public perception. … In a small town that is already riddled with gossip, please don’t do yourself the disservice of adding fuel to the fire,” Palmer said.

The directors did not reply to the comments.

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