Mayor, principal engage in verbal sparring match
The latest: A newly completed petition; a verbal sparring match between Port Aransas High School Principal Travis Longanecker and Mayor Claude Brown at a city council meeting; and a declaration by Longanecker that PAHS soon will fundamentally change how it handles matters involving student alcohol use allegations.
After the head shop, Happy Days, opened on March 15, the Port Aransas City Council passed a resolution to support enforcement of state laws prohibiting the sale or advertisement of drug paraphernalia and illegal drugs, and to discourage those kinds of transactions in town. (For the record, neither the shop nor its owner or employees have been formally charged with any wrongdoing. Police have said bongs are not illegal to sell because they arguably have legal uses such as tobacco consumption.)
After the council passed the resolution, a group of citizens got together and circulated a petition around town supporting the council’s resolution and encouraging enforcement of not just drug laws, but also laws against under-age drinking.
Ron Russell presented the city council with the petition at the council’s meeting on Thursday, May 21. City Manager Michael Kovacs said the petition contained more than 300 signatures.
At the same meeting, Longanecker stood before the council and spoke about a town hall-style meeting he attended April 21 at Port Aransas High School, where parents from around the community debated what to do in response to the appearance of the head shop. Conversations moved from the subject of drugs to alcohol use by minors, and the petition drive was born from the meeting.
Brown was at the meeting. Longanecker quoted Brown as saying that the town has an under-age drinking problem “because we don’t do anything about it.”
Longanecker also quoted the mayor as saying, “If you all want to petition somebody, you need to petition your police to enforce the law.”
In an interview with the South Jetty, Brown said Longanecker quoted him accurately.
Longanecker said he has no argument with Port Aransas Police Department. “These are men and women I work with on a weekly basis, and I am quite confident in their ability to enforce the law,” said Longanecker, who started his speech with a statement that he was speaking not as a representative of any group but as a parent and educator.
Addressing Brown, Longanecker went on to say, “Why would you ask a community group to petition a department that is part of the City you help run? I thought about that, and wouldn’t that be like my superintendent or school board telling a group of concerned citizens to petition the high school principal to change the dress code?”
Speaking later to a South Jetty reporter, Brown said, “If (Longanecker) is going to be in school and is going to be in the learning process, he needs to learn how the city operates.”
Brown said the city charter does not put him in charge of the city and that it forbids him from ordering department heads around.
“I take the community’s concerns to the city manager, and I make the translation between the community and the city manager, or the community and the council,” Brown said. “After that point in time, I’ve done my job.”
Longanecker said he also suggested during the town hall meeting that any message citizens deliver to the city about law enforcement should be copied to the constable’s office, a Nueces County agency headed by Bobby Sherwood. He said he didn’t mean it as a criticism of the constable’s office.
“But you were lightning-quick to defend the constable’s office while, at the same time, suggesting to us that we should petition your police department to enforce the law,” Longanecker told Brown. “When I made the comment about including county officials in our efforts you said, ‘Bobby Sherwood is one of my best friends, and I will be sure that goes straight back to him.’
“Rather than taking that as a criticism of your friend, why wouldn’t you parlay your position as mayor, and your friendship with the constable, to unite the city and county behind a common good? I knew the mo- ment the suggestion left my lips, it had been ill received.”
Brown told Longanecker he was offended by his comments. In a later interview, Brown said that when he brought up Sherwood’s name, he was trying to tell people at the meeting that he would pass along to the constable their concerns about minors and substance abuse.
Brown said Longanecker “needs to start paying attention” to city government more.
“That’s been my ultimate goal since I got (elected), that the city and county get along … for the common good of the citizens of this town,” Brown said.
“I went into that town hall with a positive attitude,” the mayor said. “I wanted to see if we could possibly come up with some good answers.”
Longanecker “came up here (to the council meeting) with a pitchfork attitude he needs to get rid of.”
Longanecker said Port Aransas, as a community, has long failed to seriously address underage drinking. Leaders in town have made the same mistake, he said.
Longanecker went on to say that part of his responsibilities at PAHS include enforcing what are known as the school’s Extracurricular Standards of Behavior. Those are rules that state that students will be suspended from extracurricular participation if they are determined by the school to have been consuming alcohol either at or away from school.
“When we receive a report that one of our students has been drinking, we call the student in and ask him or her about it,” Longanecker said. “Often, one or two students will admit to drinking while others who were at the same party will deny.
Often, the honest end up being punished, while the untruthful get off scot-free, the principal said.
“And so the debate ensues: Should we even investigate under-aged drinking incidents that occur outside of school?” Longanecker said. “Well, this current discussion has lent clarity to the way we plan to enforce the Extracurricular Standards of Behavior beginning next school year.”
Beginning in the 2009-10 school year, school officials will investigate only “documented student drinking,” Longanecker said.
“We are not the police, so … we will not pursue sanctions against students unless a student has been ticketed for violating the law. So, our policy prohibiting student drinking will only be as strong as city and county officials want it to be,” Longanecker said. “When they enforce the law, we will enforce our rules.”
Longanecker told Brown he wants city and county leaders “to establish a culture of enforcement when it comes to underage drinking, and that has very little to do with your police department and everything to do with your leadership on the matter.”
Longanecker announced that the public is invited to a presentation he will make on drug and alcohol issues at 5 p.m. on Monday, June 8, at the PAHS cafetorium. The presentation will outline what the school has planned for coming years in terms of education, prevention and counseling programs, he said.
The school district recently won a grant for a research-based drug and alcohol education program that Longanecker said he will cover in detail. He said he also will field questions from parents and students about how the school plans to enforce Extracurricular Standards for Behavior.