BARRINGTON — The Barrington School Committee’s decision to vote on a procedural change to the breathalyzer policy — shifting from a suspicion-based approach to mandatory testing for all students as they enter dances — caught a few people in town by surprise ... including one member of the committee.
Tom Flanagan, a first-year member, said he was told the breathalyzer policy would not be voted on at the June 18 meeting. He had asked because he had a commitment and was not going to be at the June 18 meeting.
“I was assured it was not going to come up for a vote,” Mr. Flanagan said last week. “Bob McIntyre (school superintendent) had assured me.”
Dr. McIntyre said he could not recall whether he had assured Mr. Flanagan the item would be voted on and added that the school committee and not the superintendent decides what happens at the meetings. Mr. Flanagan said he had told the police chief there would not be a vote on the mandatory breathalyzer topic at the June 18 meeting.
“I’m angry. I told the chief there would not be a vote,” Mr. Flanagan said. “My feeling is that the school committee acted with good intentions but without a deep understanding of the impact of their actions on the community ... the school committee appears like they did this with a backroom deal.”
Others also reacted with surprise when they discovered the school committee voted to approve the procedural change at its June 18 meeting.
Jim Tumber, a resident who has urged the school committee not to implement the mandatory testing in the past, said he had no idea the issue was going to be voted upon.
“The last meeting we had was a hearing, and (school committee chairman) Jim Hasenfus said there was no policy. I’ve been waiting for this policy to be revealed. Now the policy has been voted through,” he said. “I’m very discouraged.”
School officials said the meeting was posted appropriately, and a copy of the agenda for the June 18 meeting shows “Breathalyzer Policy” listed as item number four under the heading “Information and Proposals.” The minutes from the meeting have not been formally approved and therefore are not available to the public.
Mr. Tumber said the school committee owed it to the public to do a better job getting the word out that the issue would be voted on.
“On an issue that is as divisive as this, that is this important, as this is, I think they had the responsibility of doing a better job of advertising this item to the community,” he said. “This is an example of how the effort to involve the community is very weak and needs to be addressed. They didn’t involve the press.”
Mr. Tumber contrasted that to the workshop earlier this spring. A crowd of about 50 people attended the meeting at the middle school, and media was well-represented.
A representative from the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union was at the early spring workshop and would have attended the June 18 meeting had they known the policy would be voted on, said RI ACLU Director Steven Brown.
“I just found out about this yesterday,” said Mr. Brown on Wednesday, July 15. “Well, it’s surprising how the school committee decided to place this issue under the radar. It had been a matter of great public interest, yet it appears they voted without much public involvement.
“It sounds like they voted for the policy in principle without having a policy to vote on, which is an unusual way to handle it.”
Last week, Mr. Hasenfus said the school committee would be revisiting the issue. He said the official language of the procedural change was provided by the district’s attorney and that the school committee would discuss it and vote on it again at an upcoming meeting. No date has been set for that meeting.
“I always prefer to have as many people who are interested in a particular issue have the opportunity to come to our meetings and weigh in. I’m a big believer in the importance of community engagement, and we’re doing as good a job as we can. Communicating with the community is one of the primary goals for this district,” he said.
“Plainly we complied with any and all requirements we are supposed to comply with. It’s always good to communicate as much as you can, and this is something we will continue to work on.”
As for Mr. Flanagan’s reaction to the school committee’s decision to vote at the June 18 meeting, Mr. Hasenfus said: “I recall the discussion. I do not recall the specific exchange. I don’t want people to feel left out or excluded. It is my hope to have Dr. Flanagan involved in a complete discussion and vote on the policy.”