“Now is the time for healing to begin,” said a relieved Wilson Sears Saturday morning.

“I hope that now we can finish out the school year with harmony.”

Sears, superintendent of the Somerset Independent School system, had just learned that his school board had opted to uphold Somerset High School principal Jeff Perkins’ decision to punish a group of students who broke into and vandalized the school during a senior prank the previous week.

Damage done to the property was significant enough that law enforcement was initially brought in to investigate the incident as a crime. But instead, the school decided to handle the matter internally. Perkins, with permission from Sears, suspended the guilty students for 10 days and banned them from participation in prom, athletics, and graduation.

Students and their parents appealed the punishment in a lengthy hearing before the school board Thursday night.

After learning that many of the students and parents were most worried that some of the seniors might not be able to pass the 12th grade if they missed 10 days of instruction, Perkins and Sears agreed to amend the punishment to a 5-day suspension with 5 additional days spent in the school’s “alternate learning center” — where the students would be isolated, but would still be able to receive instruction by watching their classes on a monitor in the administration building.

By late Thursday evening, board members — minus Gretchen Cole, a longtime member whose son was one facing punishment for the incident — had apparently not made a decision whether to uphold or reverse Perkins’ decision. A continuation of the meeting was scheduled for Saturday morning.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, the board entered into a closed session as they had done Thursday evening.

An hour later, board chairman Paul Henderson exited the board room, stating simply that the meeting was over and that the board had voted.

Henderson said he did not feel it would be legal for him to discuss what happened during the meeting.

Sears, Perkins, and SHS assistant principal Tim Ham, however, were happy to discuss the results.

“The board upheld my decision, and I’m very appreciative of that,” Perkins said, adding that the board’s vote would send a message that acts like those committed by the group on April 27 would not be tolerated.

Perkins explained that putting the students in the alternate learning center would reduce the punishment’s impact in terms of the students’ ability to receive a diploma this spring.

“Teachers, students — everyone has been concerned about this,” Perkins said.

“This has reached all the way to the principals in the other schools. Principals have to have (control) in terms of discipline in order to keep the building running efficiently on a daily basis. When you hire a principal, the support factor has to be there.”

Perkins also said the dollar amount of damages done to the school property has not yet been determined, and he did not know yet who would be responsible for paying for the damages.

Ham also said he was happy with the board’s decision.

“This is my school, too, and I have made it clear from the beginning of this problem that I love these kids just as much as everyone else does. I’ve been around them for the last five years. But they made a mistake,” Ham said.

“I have been with Mr. Sears and Mr. Perkins to the end. I’m happy this decision was made.”

Sears also expressed pleasure with the board’s decision.

“It appears as though at least three of our board members decided it was in the best interest of our schools to support our administration,” he said.

“This entire process has caused considerable grief in the school community.”

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