WEST NEWBURY — A "potentially quite dangerous" incident of students drinking while traveling to the Pentucket Regional High School girls basketball team's appearance in the state semifinals in Boston last week has prompted school officials to put a renewed focus on educating families about alcohol abuse.
Superintendent Paul Livingston sent an e-mail to parents last week addressing an issue that involved "a number of students" who took the train from Newburyport to Boston last Tuesday to watch the team play in the state semifinals at TD Banknorth Garden.
While on the train, according to the e-mail, students drank and possibly used illegal substances. Boston Garden security saw several intoxicated students, took them aside and contacted high school officials, who then contacted parents to get the students home.
Livingston said the high school had disciplined those involved. Livingston would not say how many students were disciplined or how severely. The student handbook states that students under the influence of alcohol will be reported to the police, according to the e-mail.
The school is still investigating the incident, according to the e-mail, and Livingston said the school abided by student handbook and Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Assocation rules in disciplining students.
In light of the incident, Livingston addressed all high school students during their lunch periods last week about the dangers of drinking, and said the school would continue to discuss underage drinking through health classes and other programs.
"We're looking at adolescents who make mistakes," Livingston said. "We want to use this as a learning opportunity."
"One of the things we never want to do is sweep issues under the rug. We acknowledge there are realities and that we have to deal with them."
The Pentucket girls basketball team, which went 21-3 this year but narrowly lost in the semifinals to Archbishop Williams, has been among the best in the state for two years and was making a second-straight appearance at the Garden.
School officials organized buses to take students to the game, but some of the students traveled by train from Newburyport and possibly Haverhill, Livingston said.
"When we put together a fan bus, it wasn't for that reason (to prevent alcohol use). But it was to try to create a safer atmosphere," Pentucket Athletic Director Dan Thornton said. "We can't police trains to Boston, so what the students do outside of our supervision is really tough. Once they set foot in the Boston Garden, it's a school event. That's where our school policy came in."
Thornton said that while the incident tarnished the game, student drinking is a problem that every school faces.
"We can't police trains to Boston, so what the students do outside of our supervision is really tough," Thornton said. "Once they set foot in the Boston Garden, it's a school event ... It's really unfortunate. I hate to see Pentucket get dragged through this. We're not unlike any other public high school. These unfortunate things happen."
In his letter to parents, Livingston urged parents to use it as a learning opportunity and to help them make better choices.
"It is vital that all of us maintain steadfast vigilance regarding the activities of our children," the letter said. It cited the potential circumstances of student drinking and encouraged students to share information with adults, even if it's anonymous.
Both Livingston and Thornton stressed that the actions of a few students shouldn't blemish the accomplishments of a hugely successful season by the basketball team and the Pentucket student body as a whole.
"The acts of very few people tarnish the behavior of 98 percent of our students," Thornton said.
Sports editor Dan Guttenplan contributed to this report.