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Parents (And Their Lawyers) Are Killing The High School Athletic Honor Code

If you’ve ever played school sports, or if your child does so now, you were informed at some point that it was a privilege to be an athlete, and as such you (or your child) could get suspended or tossed off the team for stuff that didn’t have anything to do with grades or on-field conduct — conduct such as drinking or using drugs, or merely being present where alcohol or drugs were being consumed. The assumption behind these rules is that your parents — or you as a parent — would be OK with this punishment.

That assumption, certainly these days, is highly incorrect. With parents going to court to fight discipline meted out in the name of athletics as a privilege, it seems to me that these honor codes are relics, and that schools would suffer a lot less grief if they dropped them. Certainly, there are courts receptive to parents’ lawsuits challenging punishments to their young athletes based on honor code violations, and by extension questioning how far schools can do in regulating conduct not just directly involved with sports, but everything — 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

For example, in Oregon, a federal judge on April 15 granted a temporary injunction that lifted the 28-day suspension of a Portland high school lacrosse player whom the school said violated the honor code by texting during school about procuring alcohol for a party, and handing over $10 to another student to buy it.

The complaint filed by the parents of 17-year-old Jackson Fletcher of Wilson High features the kind of whiny, entitled language that makes you think it’s lousy parents who are ruining effective school discipline.

Their lawsuit notes that the school’s decision violated his free-speech and due-process rights. Moreover, the suspension from all activities (it also includes a ban from prom) will “irreparably affect J.F.’s opportunity for obtaining potential scholarships to colleges based on his participation in lacrosse,” that it caused him to cry “because lacrosse is very important to him and is his motivation for making good decisions,” and that the vice principal had it out for him because the parents went over her head to rescind a previous punishment.

U.S. District Court Michael Simon, according  to the Oregonian, advised young Jackson Fletcher the school was trying to help him take the right path, threw out his parents’ free-speech argument, upheld Fletcher’s attendance at drug-and-alcohol counseling sessions, and didn’t let him back into the prom. However…

[T]estimony … revealed that Vice Principal Maude Lamont and Dean of Students John Robinson may have had insufficient evidence to make the finding that Fletcher violated the drug-and-alcohol policy, Simon said Tuesday.

The judge also noted that he believed there was a potential for irreparable harm to Fletcher, who plays on the Wilson Trojans varsity team, if he cannot compete in games.

I don’t know, realistically, what Fletcher’s chances are at getting a lacrosse scholarship, but the parents’ lawsuit — and the judge’s ruling — reflects a reality in which families invest big bucks in their children’s activities, and that is what wags the educational dog. Many parents, in a time of economic uncertainty, are not going to let their investments to go to waste because of the judgement of some vice principal, no matter what their child has done.

The Fletchers’ case is hardly the only lawsuit — of the last month.

In Richland County, Ohio, parents are suing the Clear Fork Valley Local School District on behalf of their son, who was suspended from sports in fall 2013 because, over the summer, he retweeted a post from a pro-marijuana account that include a picture of the drug. The family told the Mansfield News-Journal that the district continued to harass their son after the suspension, particularly when he joined other students in protesting an upcoming drug-testing policy. So the family sued in a state court March 26 because of alleged violations to his free speech and due process rights. The school has not responded.

Other, similar cases have popped up over the last few years that have gone in parents’ favor, including a few that ended policies in a few New Jersey burgs, in which local police would inform the school of any arrests or busts so the district could take action against students.

Like Judge Simon, I understand that the schools, in theory, are trying to ensure their students and athletes are marching along the right path. I can understand the frustration of Westbrook (Maine) High School athletic director Marc Sawyer, who as of June is quitting his “dream job” in the town in which he grew up because of fights with some parents and administrators over how he handled an investigation to athletes who attended a party at which alcohol was present, in violation of that school’s honor code. From the Portland Press-Herald:

In a letter to Superintendent Marc Gousse, … Sawyer said he was unable to improve the athletic and activities program because of “the incestuous culture of the community, individuals placing their own needs ahead of the overall group, and the inability for many to understand appropriate boundaries.”

Sawyer, 41, said … that his letter didn’t refer to specific incidents, but to an overall “difference in philosophy” between him and the community, particularly about holding students accountable for their actions.

“Almost from the very beginning, my decision-making was being challenged because people had concerns about where my allegiances were,” he said.

The problem for the Marc Sawyers of the world is, if parents and the wider community don’t care if the soccer team is getting hammered on a Friday night, what power does the school have to do anything about it? Also, we’ve all seen times in our school lives when it appeared the ironclad honor code was being enforced selectively, or horribly. Becoming dean of students does not give you the investigative skills, or subpoena power, of a detective. Even when parents are unreasonable and pains-in-the-behind, they also can be right.

Does this mean schools should not care about their athletes’ conduct at all? I would think judges would have a hard time overturning punishment that happens as a result of something that actually happened during a game, or conduct that occurred otherwise in the context of the sport. Also, if serious criminal charges are involved, that might give schools some leeway, too.

I’m no lawyer, and because of that, I would advise schools to have a good attorney look over their honor codes for athletes — and talk about the implications of getting rid of them. At this point, these codes appearing to be causing more harm to schools than to any student violating them.

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