Despite its charge to “concern itself with questions of policy,” the North Shore School Board has sidestepped that responsibility with its unwillingness to publicly discuss and consider the appropriateness of the Athletics Department interscholastic sports team attendance policy.
The policy provides that students with three unexcused absences from practices or two unexcused absences from games be expelled from the team. Up until this year the policy, as stated in the District's Interscholastic Sports Handbook, provided no clear definition of an excused or unexcused absence. That fact should have rendered the policy unenforceable. Nonetheless it was applied to a student last spring who was kicked off the Varsity Softball team as a result of missing three practices to participate in the women’s ice hockey junior nationals tournament. After the student-athlete’s parents appealed to the school board to reverse the expulsion (the appeal was denied) and pressed for a clear definition of “unexcused absence,” the board directed two committees - the Athletic Policy and Athletic Advisory Committees, to revisit the policy. The two committees decided to keep it in place (although considering to extend it to the middle school), and after additional direction from one board trustee to clarify what constituted an unexcused absence with bullet points, the committees did so, and those were published in a slightly revised athletics interscholastic handbook that was posted on the district’s website.
Those definitions, as they now read in the handbook, are two bullet-pointed lists, each topped with a label - “excused” or “unexcused.” There is no heading or introductory paragraph preceding the lists indicating that the terms apply to absences. Only three reasons are designated “excused” - “Sick; Family Death; Religious observance.” The second list, only slightly longer, and obviously not all inclusive, identifies examples of “unexcused” absences. That list includes school sponsored academic trips - despite the fact that students participating on such trips are legally excused from attending school.
At this past Thursday evening’s BOE meeting, another parent offered her family’s personal experience with the policy. Her daughter was excluded from the JV soccer team for the entire season because her family chose to attend her grandparents 50th wedding anniversary celebration which included the renewal of their wedding vows and a family reunion in Ireland during the second to last week of August. The family planned ten months ahead, scheduling the event to accommodate the child and her soccer season since traditionally summer practices have begun the week before the start of school - not two weeks before as was the case this year. Unable to change the reservations or accommodations when they became aware of the conflict in June, they immediately appealed for leniency to the coach and athletic director but were rejected, and then took their case to the superintendent later that summer to no avail. When the parent spoke at this past Thursday’s meeting requesting that the policy be re-considered so that other serious and committed student-athletes not also be similarly unjustly impacted, the seven board members sat silent, unresponsive to the parent’s story or request.
The absurdity of excluding this child from a team, for which there were no cuts, who had no real choice but to attend the family commitment (one that was a year in the making and carefully planned so that she would not miss practice) is self-evident, as is the policy itself - in particular the narrowness of its definition of an excused absence.
No exceptions for academic trips or competitions? To take the SATs? To travel to visit a loved one battling cancer? To grieve the death or attend the funeral of a classmate? No exception for the troubled teen from a broken home who misses practices because of pressures that most people can’t imagine - exactly the kid we want participating in interscholastic sports? Really?
The policy is inflexible and the penalty, in many cases, draconian, and it is very questionable as to whether it is representative of the values of the athletic community as a whole and the district. Yes, athletics are important - teaching commitment to one’s team and putting the common good above self-interest is important. And yes, of course there should be penalties for missing practice and missing games. But meting out the ultimate punishment against an athlete for putting academics above sports; against an athlete who chooses visiting a critically ill grandparent in Florida over a football game and a couple of practices; Does that really demonstrate selfishness and a lack of commitment to the team? Come on.
The Garden City School District, recognized as one of the best on Long Island in both academics and interscholastic athletics, with a simple statement in its student-athlete contract, gets it right. “The athlete is expected to place athletic competition in its proper perspective,” the contract reads, “It represents only one part of the learning process and should not be pursued to the exclusion of everything else.”
But what is even more concerning than the policy itself, is the school board’s decision to handcuff itself with regard to its authority to oversee and develop district policies.
“It’s an Athletics Department policy not a Board policy,” the Board President has said at more than one meeting in an effort to justify the BOE’s inaction. That rationale is a dodge; a pretext for avoiding a potentially contentious debate and decision that could challenge one made by a group of committed and well-intentioned people that includes a district administrator, coaches, and parents of a relatively small number of athletes.
The schools superintendent has further hamstrung the trustees by warning at the June 16th meeting that if they meddle in this policy, then they, out of fairness, must also “intervene” in all other extra-curricular policies. And . . . so what? Isn’t that a central part of their job - to at least examine the district’s policies to make sure that at the very least they are reasonable, appropriate, and consistent - especially if they have been repeatedly challenged as unjust?
District policy reads, “the Board shall concern itself primarily with questions of policy, rather than with administrative details. The application of policies is an administrative task to be performed by the Superintendent of Schools and staff, who shall be held responsible for the effective administration and supervision of the entire school system.”
If this isn’t a question of policy, then nothing is.
And yes, it is important and appropriate for a school board to delegate authority to committees. But delegating authority should not be confused with surrendering authority. Additionally, the Board is better able to see the big picture and consider whether a single program’s policies interfere with educational or other goals of the district.
And after careful consideration, if the Board agrees with the policy as it stands, then so be it, but say so publicly and why it is in the best interests of the district's students, rather than sitting silently as others courageously stand at the public comment podium and speak - a task made far more difficult when it is concerning the experiences of one’s own child and when one considers the potential consequences of standing up alone to challenge the powers that be.
BACK TO WEEKLY