“We are following our policy exactly,” said Haywood County Schools Superintendent Anne Garrett.
While Garrett can’t talk about specific disciplinary action taken against individual students, she could discuss in generic terms what the school board’s policy is.
In particular, school policy says that student athletes charged with a crime have to sit out 20 percent of the games in a season and do 25 hours of community service but can continue practicing and training. If it’s a student’s second offense, they have to sit out a whole season and can’t practice with their team. On the third strike, they are permanently barred from playing on any school sports team.
Garret said the school has received a few phone calls from the public expressing concern over the football player remaining on the team after news of the charges came out in the past week.
“Schools would have an obligation to take this seriously,” said Janine Murphy, assistant legal counsel for the North Carolina School Boards Association. “You might disagree with whether it is enough games or not enough games, but at least they are taking a stand that this is not acceptable conduct for someone representing our school.”
Therein lies the conundrum: was it an ignorant, albeit mean-spirited, stunt? Or did the perpetrators realize the gravity of what they were doing?
Regardless, “The unintended consequences can be very powerful and very damaging,” said Mary McGlaufin, a member of a discussion and advocacy group in Haywood County called Changemakers for Racial Understanding. “When something happens, like a cross burning, in a community, it tears the fabric of the whole community. It is a form of domestic terrorism.”
While the Civil Rights era may seem like ancient history to today’s teens, they surely would realize that cross-burning is not in the same vein as graffiti or rolling someone’s yard with toilet paper, Murphy said.
“It is clearly something that is done to intimidate,” Murphy said. “The Supreme Court has determined this is a true threat, with intent of intimidating any person or group of persons, not just trash talk.”
Bullying and harassment in school settings — and the severe and lasting emotional scarring it can inflict on victims — has been in the national spotlight in recent years. It can’t be easy for the student targeted by a weekend cross-burning to come back to school the following Monday.
“Does it take away her feeling of acceptance in the community?” Murphy posed.
That’s certainly not something that escapes Garrett. Garrett is the author of a book Bullying in American Schools. The book defines bullying as a form of violence among children, one that can begin with put-downs and teasing but has the dangerous capactiy to escalate and sets the stage for a lifetime of rule-breaking and antisocial behavior.
“Such violence has become one of the most serious problems in America today, and both bullies and their victims need help,” according to the publisher’s synopsis of Garrett’s book, which came out in 2003.
The Changemakers for Racial Understanding, a group that has been meeting for a year to discuss strategies for dismantling racism, hopes to work with the school system.
“Certainly from the administration there is a desire to make sure there is a zero tolerance. We as a group want to be a back up that says we as a community support that,” McGlaufin said.
If a student is convicted of a felony, other policies would kick in. But for now, the school board is beholden to follow the policy on its books, Garrett said.
“There is a big difference between charged and being convicted,” Garrett said.
The Haywood County School Board policy doesn’t take into account the severity of the crime a student is charged with. Under the current policy, a student athlete charged with underage drinking theoretically would have the same punishment as a student charged with murder.
Garrett said that is something the school board may chose to revisit and reconsider going forward.
The policy currently on the books was revised in the fall of 2011 and matches that recommended by the N.C. High School Athletics Association and the N.C. Association of School Boards, Garrett said
Previously, Tuscola and Pisgah high schools weren’t handling infractions by student athletes consistently. Repercussions could even vary from coach to coach, who may have decided on a case-by-case basis whether to make a particular student run 10 miles or sit out a couple of games depending on what they did.
“We wanted the two high schools to be consistent,” Garrett said of the policy revision in 2011. “We are grateful we had a board that was proactive in looking at it.”
Schools ultimately have a lot of latitude in deciding whether to kick student athletes off a team. Playing sports is a privilege, not an entitlement. Students have to have minimum GPAs and attendance records, for example. Principals do have discretion to bar a student from playing for their conduct.
“Generally the rule for athletes is you represent the school, and therefore, you are held to a higher standard as a representative of the school,” said Murphy. “You can’t anticipate every possible misbehavior, so you have to have some leeway to deal with specific incidents.”