Forward Progress

August 7, 2017

This article first appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Athletic Management

With the aim of better aligning policies with the needs of today’s student-athletes, this author led his school district through the revision of its code of conduct.

By Nathan DeLany

 

Nathan DeLany, CAA, is Athletic Director at Marshfield (Wis.) High School. He serves on the Board of the Wisconsin Athletic Directors Association and as Chair of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Sports Advisory Committee. He can be reached at: delany@marshfieldschools.org.

 

 

A few years ago, a group of student-athletes on one of our teams at Marshfield (Wis.) High School made a mistake. While at an away contest, they found an open closet that held items emblazoned with the opposing school’s name and logo, a much-sought-after “trophy” in certain sports. The temptation was great and they took the gear.

The athletic department code of conduct at the time was black and white. If a student was found to have violated a rule, there was a corresponding consequence. Penalties ranged from a short-term suspension to a permanent ban from athletics.

For all students involved in this incident, it was their first violation, and resulted in a suspension for one third of their next season. They were also no longer eligible for any end-of-season awards. To many, the penalty seemed harsh, and the process uncaring.

The situation led to many difficult conversations with students and parents. Some of those discussions left the principal, coaches, and myself asking questions about our code and procedure for determining penalties: Were our consequences fair? Did the discipline match the violation? Did a form of restorative justice exist within the code? We realized that the answer to these questions was “No.”

This alarming—but important—revelation started us on a path to revising our code of conduct. Three years ago we began a process aimed at changing our policies to better serve our student body and hopefully curb undesired behaviors. It’s been an interesting, thought-provoking, and successful journey.

 

GRAY IS OKAY

The biggest impetus in rewriting the code was to offer policies that were fair, meaningful, and educational. It is tempting to spell everything out in exact terms—no discussion and no room for disagreement. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that is not what is best for students.

Even if you carefully define violations and corresponding penalties, there will still be gray areas. And how you handle gray areas can often make or break an experience for a student (and their parents). It can cause anger and resentment at the outcome—or it can push them to learn from the experience. Instead of attempting to recolor gray areas to black and white, we realized we had to embrace them.

In addition, it’s important that administrators fully support their code of conduct. When presenting it at preseason meetings and explaining the why behind a penalty, an athletic director must have conviction that the document is worthy. Students and parents can see right through you if you don’t. I wondered if people were seeing through me.

It started to become clear. We needed to take the time to revisit and think through our policies.

Our first step was to create a committee that would take on the task. We asked 24 stakeholders to serve on the group, which included administrators, teachers, coaches, advisors, parents, and students. Each stakeholder group was represented by approximately four individuals with varying experiences. For example, of our four parent members, two had children who had code violations and two did not. The four students chosen represented a cross section of athletics and activities.

The committee met monthly for six months. We began by examining the pros and cons of our own code and those of 13 various peer schools. We discussed:

• language

• consequences

• awards

• academic standards

• random drug testing

• due process

• what activities the code should apply to.

Two items took the bulk of our discussion time—activities and consequences. A big question was whether students involved in extra-curricular activities outside of athletics should be required to follow the code. Responses varied greatly, but ultimately we agreed that activities should be included in our code. Students in activities compete around the state and present their work for evaluation. This isn’t different from what athletes do, and it should be seen as a privilege to represent the school. However, activities that are part of a class for a transcript grade could not be required to follow the code.

 

NEW PROCESS

The discussion on consequences got to the heart of what we wanted to change. The general objective was to create subjectivity and unbiased evaluation of each code violation. We also wanted to open a dialogue with parents—we recognized that the traditional phone call and letter home came across as unsympathetic.

In most school districts, the athletic administrator is tasked with enforcing code violations. But there are some negative effects of this procedure. The first is that one person ends up calling the shots. The second is that the athletic administrator becomes the purveyor of doom, rather than the person who tries to cultivate relationships and find solutions for meeting expectations.

Thanks to suggestions from our colleagues in the Wausau and DC Everest school districts, we figured out how to remedy the above problems. We established two Councils, an Athletic Council and an Activities Council, each of which has five members, to make disciplinary decisions. The council consists of the Athletic/Activities Director, Principal, Guidance Counselor, the coach or advisor involved directly with the student, and one member of the teaching staff. This last person can be a coach or advisor, serves a one-year term, and is selected by the Athletic/Activities Director and Principal.

When a student-athlete allegedly violates a policy, the first step is a meeting with me. During our discussion, I try to verify that a violation occurred and get all of the details. I explain to the student that my goal is to advocate for them, so it is helpful if they are honest and do their best to explain everything. This has worked well for me because 99 percent of the time the student understands his or her mistake.

From there, a meeting with the council takes place, in which the student and his or her parents are present. Typically the meeting takes 15-25 minutes, and is structured as follows:

• I present the information provided by the evidence and verified by the student.

• The student and his or her parents follow up with comments and explain any extenuating circumstances.

• Council members ask questions of the student and/or parents, which may reveal further details.

• I explain potential consequences associated with the violation and ask the student and his or her family their opinion on what they feel might be the appropriate consequences.

• I thank the family and let them know that I will be in contact with them once the council has made a decision. The council meets privately to deliberate.

• Council members are given the guidelines of the code and often inquire about past scenarios to help guide their thought process and ultimate decision. Having consistency in council members helps with this process.

• Once a decision is reached, I notify the student and parents, both verbally and in writing. I take the time to answer any questions and listen to concerns they might have to ensure we are able to provide an opportunity for the student to learn from the experience and get back to their activity. I also let them know they can appeal the decision to the Superintendent of Schools.

• Notes are taken during the entire process to help with accuracy and record keeping.

For the past two years, this process has worked well for us. It has opened up lines of communication with parents and allowed for more meaningful penalties. It has also provided reinforcement to students that the adults in their lives care about them as individuals.

 

PERSONAL CONDUCT

Along with changing the process of determining consequences, we also altered the types of penalties given. One important step we took was to divide violations into two categories: personal conduct and conduct unbecoming; and substance violations.

Personal conduct and conduct unbecoming violations include breaking statutory laws, attendance at underage drinking and/or controlled substance parties (but without drinking or using drugs), and using social media unwisely, to name a few. The council works off the following statement:

For personal conduct and conduct unbecoming violations (excluding substance abuse), the Athletic or Activities Council shall determine consequences, if any, depending on the nature and severity of the violation and the number of offenses that the student has committed.

The penalties range from community service to prohibiting a student from participating in athletics and/or activities for the remainder of his or her career in our building. (The student may also be barred from receiving certain awards.) The large range allows flexibility. It comes down to a question of fairness: Should a student who steals a shirt from Walmart be given the same consequence as the student charged with aggravated assault?

In our previous code, we would have had a difficult time giving two different consequences for those two different violations. Our new direction allows a group of adults to listen to the story and understand its circumstances, and then intelligently identify an appropriate penalty.

We understood that we were opening ourselves up to potential scrutiny. Making the right decision is not always the easiest thing to do, but we knew it was in the best interests of our students.

 

SUBSTANCE ABUSE

When a substance violation occurs, the council follows separate guidelines for students who participate in athletics and those who engage in extra-curricular activities. Why the difference? Athletics have defined seasons that can easily have percentages and games attributed to them. Activities are more complicated in that they may include only one performance, show, or competition. So, we created a fair system, understanding that fair is not equal. It’s the old adage of comparing apples to oranges. Below is what we have put in our handbook.

For athletics: A first violation will result in suspension from competitions for not less than 20 percent of the season (minimum of one contest) and up to 100 percent of the current season or the next season in which the athlete participates. The student will be required to attend SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment) and may be subject to community service hours or an alternative at the direction of the Council.

For activities participants: First and second substance abuse violations will result in Activities Council hearings. Consequences will be determined by the Activities Council based on the circumstances of each individual case.

Our previous code stipulated ineligibility for one-third of the season on a first offense, and an AODA (Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse) screening. If a student self-reported him- or herself, then the period of ineligibility could be reduced to one-sixth of the season, but this rarely occurred.

With the revised code, our goal is to find the root cause or uncover a much deeper problem than what lies on the surface of the violation. The council tries to identify a pattern, remorse, and/or a plan for improvement. This information helps determine the appropriate consequence within the given range.

For example, let’s say a student is cited for underage consumption of alcohol, has no other violations, has been cooperative throughout the process, and shows genuine remorse. The council is likely to assign the minimum consequence of 20 percent of the season, SBIRT Screening, and 10 to 15 hours of community service. However, if these requirements for returning to play are not met, the student may remain ineligible.

SBIRT replaced our AODA screening a year ago and is required for all substance violations. We made this change because SBIRT is a vetted evaluation tool that also addresses behaviors. Our guidance counselors went through training on SBIRT and they feel it is a good process.

 

ACADEMICS

Another area we revised was academic eligibility. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) require that student-athletes at the high school level have no more than one failing grade/incomplete at the end of each marking period to continue participating. Marshfield also has a 1.5 GPA requirement. I felt strongly that we should up our standards.

As an academic/athletic advisor at Xavier University early in my career, I experienced first-hand the requirements of NCAA Division I student-athletes and how athletic and academic expectations of an academically rigorous university can co-exist. I was also a high school athletic administrator in Illinois where, at the time, an eligibility bylaw required student-athletes to be passing four classes at the end of each week to determine the following week’s eligibility. The same rule applied to the end of the semester grades and could result in a semester long ineligibility. The rule has since changed slightly, but it’s the premise for what we are doing at Marshfield.

We continue to require a 1.5 GPA and no more than one failing grade, as per WIAA and DPI requirements, but this is now monitored every three weeks and can result in weekly ineligibility until the academic standards are met. At the end of marking periods, the WIAA eligibility rules are put in place for 15 full school days, after which time our three week-grade check takes place again.

Our goals were to remove the surprises at the end of marking periods, which usually happen at the end of a season or just before a tournament begins, and to help students realize the priority of academics first. While this has taken some adjustment, our coaches, parents, and ultimately our students are benefiting from having consistent progress monitoring.

 

GOING FORWARD

The process for changing our code of conduct was time-consuming, but we wholeheartedly feel it was worth every minute. Along with the great discussions among the members of the initial committee, the process opened up further conversations district-wide. Our school board carefully reviewed the new code and gave us helpful suggestions.

For example, our original version had no ranges for substance violations and each violation had few guidelines other than SBIRT screening. The school board was not comfortable with this design because of the potential for perceived favoritism or leniency towards a student who is needed in the immediate future for athletics or activities’ performances. This minor disagreement turned into great dialogue, and the final formulation showed a true collaboration from students all the way to our elected school board members.

Is our new code of conduct perfect? Absolutely not. No policy or procedure is. The downfalls to the new process are threefold:

• Council meetings can take up quite a chunk of building staff’s time. They can also be difficult to set up when juggling six or more different schedules.

• Sometimes, athletes’ parents do not make themselves available to the council. This may delay the process. Worse still, some parents choose not to be a part of the meetings at all.

There can be a perception of no penalties for violations because black and white consequences no longer exist and students don’t always share with their peers the penalties they received.

Any time there is change, stakeholders want to know how it will affect them—and whether there are any hidden agendas. We were careful to let the community know about the revisions, and the reasoning behind them. And we found that parents were understanding rather than concerned. They are very appreciative that the new process allows them to be involved in disciplinary meetings.

We did not recreate the wheel in Marshfield. During the whole process, we relied on colleagues, our Board of Education, district administrators, our experiences, and other district handbooks to help us re-write our code.

In the end, we created a policy that allows for the evaluation of each incident rather than a by-the-book process with a one-size-fits-all mentality. We enhanced our district’s expectations and values with regards to academics, athletics, and activities. And we created a platform for dialogue among students, families, the school, and the community. The code will evolve like all other policies, but the current format is strong proof that our collaboration created improvement.

sidebar:

Second Chances

A violation of a code of conduct usually leads to one of two outcomes. It can break students or help them become stronger. In the case of the students mentioned at the start of this article, we worked hard to help them see their mistake as a way to grow and learn.

Those involved were all multi-sport athletes who had the potential to be school leaders. Our coaching staff, along with myself and our principal, engaged with them in conversations about mistakes, change, and judgement. We talked about how a person is judged when they fall, but they are also judged on how well they get back up and face their shortcomings.

The students responded well. Rather than looking through a negative lens, they took the opportunity to prove to the person looking back at them in the mirror that they would make better choices and become leaders in their school. And they followed through.

This group of students became the foundational rocks on our teams, in activities, and in the classroom. They had a unique appreciation for having lost time and the opportunity of a second chance. In a champion’s fashion, they seized the opportunity. They matured from the experience and became advocates for our athletic code and what it stands for.

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