Can they play?: Lenox debates changing rules on middle school athletes playing JV, varsity contact sports

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LENOX — Are middle schoolers old enough to play JV or varsity contact sports?

That's the question the Lenox school community is debating currently, and the school's and district's leadership is listening for guidance.

Lenox held a pair of meetings on Wednesday and will hold two more meetings on Sept. 6 and 12 to debate the following issue: Whether or not 8th grade students should be allowed to participate in contact sports at the varsity level — with permission — and whether 7th graders should be allowed to play a contact sport at either level.

The school made an initial ruling on the issues, and emailed the school community that, starting with fall sports, 7th graders would not be permitted to play contact sports offered at the school (soccer, baseball, softball, basketball) and 8th graders would need a special waver to be signed to participate in varsity contact sports, but could play at the JV level.

The initial email was met with both acceptance and resistance. As a result, Lenox principal Mike Knybel, assistant principal Brian Cogswell and superintendent of Lenox Public Schools Kim Merrick decided to host a series of open meetings to discuss the rules.

Knybel said the idea of adding the new rules has been discussed before, but started heating up during the summer after he returned from a medical leave.

"We looked at it in the spring," Knybel said after the afternoon meeting Wednesday. "Then we kind of sat on it and felt that a communication of parents would be beneficial once we knew that our upperclassmen were already reaching out to 7th graders."

Now, the rule has been tabled. An original email announcing the four meetings suggested that the school wanted to reach a decision by Oct. 1 in preparation for the winter season, but Knybel said that they are not "locked in" to deciding by Oct. 1.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association's policy on the situation is written as such in the MIAA Handbook: "For a student to practice with, or to represent a MIAA member school ... the student must be duly enrolled in that school. Additionally, the student must be a candidate for that school's diploma, subject to the jurisdiction of that school's principal (i.e. the principal must have the authority to suspend the student from classes), and under the supervision of that school principal."

Lenox falls into this category, because the middle school is in the same building as the high school, and Knybel is the principal for the middle schoolers.

In the afternoon session on Wednesday, about a dozen community members sat in the school library and listened to Knybel, Cogswell and Merrick discuss their rationale behind the school's decision. The trio also allowed those in attendance to speak, and what transpired was a back-and-forth conversation that weighed the pros and cons of enacting the ban.

"We expected [a reaction], and the comments you heard tonight were pretty concrete, pretty valid," Knybel said. "They are looking at both sides, safety and student performance. You saw a lot of coaches, and they feel that most of our coaches do make sound decisions."

Those opposed to the new rule cited numerous reasons for keeping things as they were: from numbers problems on certain teams, to building school and team spirit early, to making sure that there were options available to kids to participate in some kind of activity.

"As you heard tonight, we had parents that have been involved in youth athletics at the board level to organize our teams to tell us what our feeder programs were, that's important to us as well," Knybel said. "We do not want to see our feeder program collapse due to a decision we may make."

Between a short presentation from Cogswell and Knybel's own thoughts, the idea behind the rule is multifaceted. Academics were a large component of the rule, and part of the wording on the new rule dictates that middle schoolers have to pass the five "core" classes in the middle school to play sports. If a student gets a 'F' in one core subject, the athlete could apply for a waiver to keep playing. Fail two classes, and the student would be barred from participating. The academic rule would be in line with what high schoolers are subjected to at Lenox.

Administrators also noted they looked to other schools in the state and how they approach middle schoolers in varsity sports. Knybel noted that Berkshire County athletic directors and principals were scheduled to meet with the MIAA at the end of September, and middle school sports participation was one subject set to be discussed.

Knybel also noted the division of the middle school and high school in the academic realm, and trying to maintain that in the athletic sphere, as well.

Beyond the classroom, though, numbers are also an important part of the discussion. With 7th graders appearing on several Lenox teams last year — softball was the sport mentioned most on Wednesday — some programs have depended on the infusion of youth every season. There was also mention of the availability of youth leagues for certain sports, and how a ban on 7th graders participating would crush whatever feeder program existed.

With others also mentioning a lack of numbers in the "house" leagues in Lenox, Knybel said that was a cause for concern.

"I was a little surprised that the town, the house leagues, are having trouble making numbers," the principal said. "To me, as someone that wants to see our sports thrive, I want to make sure that feeder programs are in place."

The next meeting on the subject will be on Sept. 6 from 5 to 6 p.m., and the final meeting will be on Sept. 12 from 5 to 6. Both meetings will be held at Lenox.

After the conclusion of the meetings, Knybel said that there will be another meeting of school officials to determine the final policy. That will also include speaking with the school committee

"I think we will revisit as an administrative team, and we will probably pull some key stakeholders," Knybel said.

Geoff Smith can be reached at gsmith@berkshireeagle.com, @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter and 413-496-6254.


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