PLAINS - Allegations of possible underage drinking at a high school pre-graduation party here have prompted the Plains School Board to ask the Montana School Boards Association to investigate.
The reason: The private party, held at the Sanders County Fairgrounds the night before May 30 graduation ceremonies, was allegedly hosted by the school board's chairman and three Plains schoolteachers, who all had children in the senior class, and also was allegedly attended by the school's superintendent.
The next morning, one of the guests at the party, another graduating senior, was found passed out behind the wheel of his car in a church parking lot by people arriving for Sunday services. He was arrested and charged with driving under the influence, and graduated with his class later that afternoon.
"I think it's appropriate," Krista Standeford of the Montana Community Change Project said of the investigation into whether teens had been drinking at the party at the fairgrounds. "Such a shadow has been cast over the school and the administration - if something inappropriate happened, it should be discovered and dealt with, and if nothing happened we can lay it to rest, heal and move on."
With chairman John Holland absent, the board voted unanimously at a special meeting to request the investigation.
The Sanders County Sheriff's Office is conducting a separate investigation to determine if any laws were broken.
The trustees released a statement that read, "After much public input and discussion of the pros and cons of conducting its own investigation, the Board of Trustees determined that it was in the best interest of the District to retain the services of the Montana School Boards Association to conduct an independent fact-finding investigation of the potential wrongdoing on the part of school employees and officials at the graduation party as it relates to graduates and the possible consumption of alcohol."
Some people at the meeting objected to the $5,000 cost to taxpayers for the investigation of a private party, and at least one seemed to question the impartiality of an MSBA investigation. The association "represents the interests of elected school boards," according to its website.
Debra Silk, associate executive director and general counsel for the MSBA who attended the school board meeting, said the public discussion centered around whether the school board should conduct its own investigation or bring in the MSBA, not whether an MSBA investigation would be impartial.
Kerri Langoni, a field services specialist on the MSBA staff, is leading the investigation, Silk said.
Multiple sources told the Missoulian that the graduation party was hosted by Holland, the board chairman, and teachers Walt and Lorraine Hermiston, and Carl Benson. They also said Richard Magera, who retired as superintendent of schools in Plains at the end of the school year, and his wife Coleen, the Sanders County attorney, were among the guests.
Holland did not return a message left by the Missoulian on Wednesday. Benson was on a trip to eastern Montana and could not be reached for comment.
The Hermistons and Magera have unpublished phone numbers.
Plains High School counselor Betty Taylor told the Missoulian she attended the party, held at the fairgrounds pavilion, but left early in the evening.
Taylor said she observed two high school students pass by her with unopened beers while she was there, but was seated at a table with her back to most of the people in attendance and did not witness any underage drinking prior to her departure. She said she did not know if the two boys had gotten the beers for themselves, or were taking them to adults.
Standeford said a prevention needs assessment shows how deeply drinking is ingrained in Montana's culture.
Almost 89 percent of Sanders County high school students reported having tried alcoholic beverages in the survey, Standeford said.
Someone of legal age they knew personally had provided alcohol to 67 percent of them, 43 percent had ridden in a car being driven by someone who had been drinking, 24 percent had been drunk in school, 22 percent had driven after drinking and 18 percent got alcohol at home with their parents' permission.
Whether it was part of the party in question, Standeford said what's most disturbing to her is the participation of adults in underage drinking - whether they're providing the alcohol or ignoring its consumption.
"That's part of our culture, too," she said. "Nobody wants to tell their neighbors what to do. But when it comes to our kids' safety, it needs to happen. If any adults did see open beer, or beer pong games, they should have reported it."
A report from the MSBA investigation could be turned over to the Plains School Board by the end of the month, according to Silk.
"In light of the negative effects of alcohol on minors and the District's and community's stance on ‘no drinking by high school students,' the board believes taking a proactive approach to determining the facts and taking measures to address this issue is best for the students, the District and the community," the school board said in its statement.
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.