21
Jul
09

Substance Abuse and Scholastic Athletics

Consider the following article from The Boston Globe about a school’s attitude towards subtance abuse in their athletics program and take a position.

Weymouth High School athletes continue to face some of the strongest penalties in the region if they’re caught drinking, smoking, or taking drugs.

The School Committee last week rejected a proposal to soften the policy – halving the number of games a student being penalized must forfeit playing. The decision revealed a split in how community leaders think substance-abuse is best handled.

On one side were those who thought the threat of being excluded from sports and other extracurricular activities for a long time kept students from making bad decisions. Changing the rules would “send the wrong message to kids,” said School Committee member Gail Sheehan.

But others, including Weymouth High principal Anthony Pope, said the penalty excludes students who would most benefit from time with coaches and a team. “If a kid makes a mistake, is it a teachable moment, or is the death penalty?” he said.

About 850 of Weymouth High’s 2,000 students participate in sports; there are about 40 other extracurricular clubs, school officials said.

Pope came to Weymouth a year ago from Sugarland, Texas, and inherited the two-year-old Weymouth rule that athletes caught in substance abuse couldn’t play for the remaining half of their season. The rule also applies to extracurricular activities.

Pope and Weymouth High School athletic director Kevin Mackin felt the punishment was too severe and recommended suspension of 25 percent of the season – the minimum standard recommended by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, or MIAA. Mackin said four students were disciplined last year, one a senior who missed the remaining games of his high school career.

“The idea was there have to be consequences for your actions, but [we] don’t want to be overly heavy-handed,” Mackin said. “Sometimes it drives students away from what should be a very positive environment.”

Mackin said that he also wanted to bring Weymouth in line with the state association and that he knew of no other school system that used the 50-percent standard for missing games.

Locally, towns that use the MIAA standard of 25 percent lost games include Canton, Hingham, Hull, Marshfield, Norwell, and Westwood, with others using variations of the rule. Duxbury, for example, suspends athletes for 40 percent of remaining games, but that r is reduced to 25 percent if students get a risk assessment from a school counselor.

Richard Baker, assistant director of the MIAA, said the group does not keep a record of what schools use to punish bad behavior. “Most schools follow our policy,” he said. “It’s a fairly stiff penalty that I would think would give [students] the message, although we support whatever schools do.”

Weymouth had gone to a more stringent standard, in part, because of problems with alcohol and drugs, said Kathy Lavery, a retired teacher and former president of the Weymouth teachers’ union who works for the local health department on drug and alcohol education. She urged the School Committee to retain the strict rules. “Nothing much has changed, except things have gotten more challenging” regarding drug and alcohol use, Lavery said.

Weymouth High English teacher Kristen Morgan, advisor for the junior class, also asked the committee to reject the proposed 25 percent rule. “What are we really saying to our kids – the kids who get drunk on Saturday night? That they won’t get in as much trouble anymore?” she said.

Mayor Susan Kay, who sits on the School Committee, missed the vote on the issue, but said she was pleased with the result. “We’re trying to send a strong message that the school system won’t tolerate any substance abuse within their sports program, or any bad behavior,” she said.

Pope said he was disappointed with the committee’s 4-1 decision, but “not bothered too much. I don’t think teaching kids to make the right decisions is dependent on this policy,” he said.

Committee member James Parker, the lone vote to loosen the rule, said he was disappointed. He had distributed an MIAA study showing the positive effect on student athletes of participating in school sports. “I have a concern with the risk of losing kids over one offense,” he said. “What also concerns me is that we are spending so much time talking about this when there are much bigger issues – like increasing class sizes and cutting teachers.”

At the same meeting, the committee voted to eliminate almost 14 positions – three by layoffs – expecting to lose more than $500,000 in state aid.

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