Facebook photos bring suspensions

By Sean Teehan
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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School officials disciplined 11 Melrose High School athletes after the school received photographs of students in possession of alcohol and/or tobacco last week.

Each student identified in the pictures, which were originated on Facebook, is required to meet with the school resource officer and athletic director while accompanied by a parent and will be suspended from up to 60 percent of athletic seasons, a statement from Superintendent Joseph F. Casey said. Captains of teams will also lose their leadership positions.

Melrose High School received the photos on a thumb drive on Monday, Casey said in a telephone interview Friday.

“We’re serious when we say that being an athlete is a privilege, not a right,’’ Casey said of actions resulting from the photos, which were taken off school grounds and outside of any school-related function.

Casey, who would not reveal who sent the pictures, said the intentions were not vindictive. “It was not done as a way to even a score or to make a statement,’’ he said.

School officials verified the pictures had been taken in the past two weeks, Mayor Robert J. Dolan said in a telephone interview. Several students identified in the pictures were wearing athletic clothing issued within the past month, he said.

“You can’t say you’re a student leader and not follow the rules,’’ Dolan said.

Athletic director Patricia Ruggiero declined comment.

In September, school officials received photos of 37 students drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, but the pictures could not be identified as being recent, according to Casey. School officials informed parents but took no disciplinary action.

“When that happened last year, the incident took place before the start of school, before the start of any athletic season,’’ Casey said. “Right now these athletes are governed . . . by MIAA [Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association] rules.’’

School officials also forwarded the photos to the Melrose Police Department, which will try to identify the home or homes where the more recent underage drinking took place, Casey said.

“If we can identify the home . . . the police will move to enforce the social host law,’’ Casey said.

Melrose has a Social Host Liability Ordinance that states: “Any person who owns, rents, or otherwise controls any premises shall be responsible when a social gathering takes place at said residence where any alcoholic beverage or drug is being unlawfully possessed, served to, or consumed by persons under the age of twenty-one (21) at these gatherings at said premises.’’

Under state law, property owners may be prosecuted criminally if underage drinking occurs in their homes. The penalty is a fine of up to $2,000, imprisonment for up to a year, or both. In addition, if an underage drinker leaves a property and is subsequently hurt or killed, the property owner may be criminally prosecuted and/or civilly tried.

Casey said actions taken against the 11 students do not reflect an effort on the school’s part to control students’ personal lives.

“We are not trying to interfere with what happens outside of schools,’’ Casey said. “[But] if you’re going to represent the school we expect you to uphold that image 24/7.’’

Actions taken against the students reinforce the school’s position on substance use among Melrose High athletes, Casey said.

“We understand that people make mistakes, but there are consequences,’’ he said.