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West Hartford’s Board of Education Will Revise Student-Athlete Handbook

Pictured: Andrew Morrow's presentation of his plan to review the Student-Athlete Handbook. Photo Credit: Ronni Newton

On Tuesday night, the Board of Education created a plan of action to make changes to the existing student-athlete handbook, with some debate on how this should be done.

By Dexter McCann and Lauren Cohen

During Tuesday night’s meeting, Andy Morrow, assistant superintendent for Administration for West Hartford Public Schools, proposed a review of the current student-athlete handbook used by Conard and Hall high schools, outlining the reason an update is needed and the proposed timeline.

“Athletics is really a rewarding and successful prospect for many of our students,” Morrow said. With that said, and noted that the handbook has not been revised in 10 years. Upon comparison to other surrounding districts, Morrow proposed a plan to review the handbook and make changes to ensure that it best suits the town’s students who are representing not only our schools, but our community as a whole.

Morrow noted three areas within the handbook need to be reviewed and potentially revised. First and foremost, the handbook must to be examined and updated to reflect changes to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s (CIAC) general policy, he said. Secondly, Morrow proposed a potential revision to the way violations of the drug and alcohol policy are handled. And, finally, a review of student-athlete behavior and participation policy will be conducted, with an emphasis on the standard of representation of West Hartford’s high schools.

Specific changes to policy have not yet been proposed. Instead, Tuesday night’s presentation outlined the timeline as to the process of reviewing, revising, and implementing changes to the handbook.

A committee composed of administrators – Director of Secondary Education Anne McKernan, Performing Arts Department Supervisor Andy Mayo, Athletic Director Jason Siegal, Conard Principal Julio Duarte, Hall Principal Dan Zittoun, and Morrow – as well as a handful of coaches, teachers, and student-athletes, will thoroughly examine the handbook throughout the months of June, July, and August to identify potential changes. After that process is finished, focus groups of parents, coaches, teachers, athletes, and other stakeholders will give their feedback on potential revisions during September and October.

By November, the committee plans to submit a draft of their proposal to the Board of Education policy subcommittee, with an initial reading tentatively scheduled for Dec. 3 and a final Board of Education vote on the revised handbook to be made on Dec. 17.

The dates are still flexible and are subject to change, but Morrow made it clear that that the plan is to have the revised handbook finished for the spring 2020 athletic season.

While Board members did not contest the need for revisions to be made, there was discussion about the timeframe as well as the applicability of the handbook.

Cheryl Greenberg, a Democratic member of the board, showed concern about the timeline of the proposal. She asked if the timeline should be altered because it is an election year, and several Board members are up for re-election. Morrow acknowledged that the timing may be tight, but said it’s an important policy decision and he hopes to get the changes implemented by January 2020, in plenty of time for the spring sports season.

Greenberg also brought up questions about expanding the handbook to also cover students involved in activities other than sports, such as theater and music programs. She wants to create a more united front with the handbook, so more students are “embraced by this,” and it can hopefully spread positive influence further than just to the athletes.

Superintendent of School Tom Moore said he was involved in creating the current guidelines back in 2003. As a teacher and a coach at the time, he noticed a definite “push-pull” in the decision-making for the handbook, meaning that the difference between athletics and other extracurricular activities is a gray area that is difficult to navigate. He phrased it as: Is there really a difference in the lead of a play getting caught drinking, vs. a top athlete?

 “[The current handbook] did kind of try to thread a needle [to expand the code beyond athletics] but still considered the athlete’s handbook,” Moore said, but it is hard to walk the line with other activities, such as select music groups, where students are receiving a grade for their work instead of just performing. Moore said that truthfully, what an expansion to the handbook would be covering would be clubs where there is not an associated class like choir or orchestra.

Republican Mark Zydanowicz pointed out that student-athletes are punished much more harshly for the same infractions as other students, noting the punishment student-athletes receive for getting caught in a photo with a beer can.

“That’s really a problem,” Zydanowicz said, “A student-athlete could get kicked off team and lose a $250,000 scholarship to college,” while a choir student may have to miss a performance and therefore get a B rather than an A in the class. “I’m really concerned about this, always have been.”  

Moore, who said he agreed with Zydanowicz on most point, did note that there are plenty of other scholarships for available to non-athletes, and National Honor Society admission is also based on behavior. He said he doesn’t think that “there’s no punishment” for non-athletes. Moore argued that the difference is with athletes are representing the school and the town as a whole, but Zydanowicz pointed out that a non-athlete wearing a Hall t-shirt and drinking a beer is representing the school no less than a Hall athlete not even wearing the school’s attire drinking a beer.

In terms of standards for athletes and non-athletes, Moore stated, “If the community believes we shouldn’t hold them to a different standard … that’s what the community belief is. That’s not my belief.”

Moore said, speaking as a former high school coach, that the best part of the standards for substance abuse is that it is “giving kids an excuse not to go,” not to drink, not to make poor choices because their coach and team are relying on them not to do so. With that said, he did admit that sometimes this mentality was unsuccessful, and there is a “summer loophole” where there can’t be punishment for actions by student-athletes out-of-season.

Zydanowicz also expressed concern that the policies are completely based on the CIAC (Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference), but Moore said it’s not, and that the policies also apply to Pops ‘N Jazz singers, artists, etc. who fall under the same handbook, even though it is still titled the “Student-Athlete Handbook.” 

Still, Zydanowicz argued that it is not being applied to all students, who should be held to the same standard, and noted that in addition to the pressure that is already on our high school students, for athletes “in the back of their mind, they have to toe the line differently than the student next to them,” which causes even more pressure. “Equity across the line is better than singling out people,” especially when “our student athletes are not treated differently” by teachers during class.

Moore disagreed, saying that while is a right, for example, to take math in Connecticut public schools, “it is not a right to be on a team or we would not have cuts. It is not a right to be in a play, it is a privilege.”

Throughout this discussion, Moore reiterated that “good people can disagree,” and that he and Zydanowicz “agreed on 90 percent” of what they were discussing.

Gus Bacon, the student Board of Education representative from Conard, asked if during the updating there could be attention paid to the severity of the current drug and alcohol policy.

“I think you should go easier on first time offenders,” said Bacon.

Bacon said he believes that consequences for first-time violation of the drug and alcohol policy are overly harsh, and referenced an athlete who was suspended before the final game of his high school career, arguing that a punishment of that severe for a first time offender is unjust. The current policy specifies that first offense results in a four-week suspension from games, during which the athlete is still expected to practice with the team and participate in non-game activities.

Democrat Dave Pauluk also asked the Board to consider changing the name of the handbook, so it will be clear that it does not just apply to athletes, and Board Chair Carol Blanks asked Morrow to ensure that a good cross-section of students are included on the committee.

All of the issues discussed by the Board, including both the scope and severity of the drug and alcohol policy, will be thoroughly examined and debated by the revision committee throughout the summer.

By the conclusion of the fall 2019 athletic season, the first draft of the updated handbook will paint a clearer picture of the direction West Hartford Public Schools plans on taking with its student-athletes, especially pertaining to the drug and alcohol policy.

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Lauren Cohen

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