Thursday, May 25, 2000

Rules hurt school's athletes

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        DAYTON, Ky. — Jimmy Hill thinks he got away with too much because he was a football player at Dayton High School.

        The school should have hauled him in front of a truancy judge, he says. Instead, he got used to skipping class without consequences, and now he's being told he can't graduate on Sunday.

        “I should have went to school,” says Mr. Hill, 18. “But the school didn't do anything to get me there.”

        His case dramatizes a dilemma for educators. Should they deny sports to slackers, or does doing so only make them more likely to quit?

        Mr. Hill's parents insist the school should have cracked down.

        “I'd get him up, I'd get him dressed, and he wouldn't go,” says his stepfather, Dale Farrell. “I had to go to work, and she had to go to work.”

        Cindy Farrell says she even called the police on her son, to no avail.

Who's fault?
        His truancy was a cry for help, the couple says, and he needed punishment. Instead, he not only played football each year but even attended prom, after missing at least 30 days between November and February.

        “They let him slide with it, because he was a football star,” Mrs. Farrell says. “After football, they threw him out the door.”

        Not so, Principal Jeff Volter says.

        This spring, Mr. Hill was given multiple opportunities to make up missed work, he says. Teachers called his home. Students even tried to get him out of bed. Nothing worked, and Mr. Hill ended up short an English credit.

        Records show Mr. Hill had five tardies and 14 absences his freshman year, 15 tardies and 33 absences his sophomore year, 38 tardies and 29 absences his junior year, and 44 tardies and 52 absences this year.

        So why, you might ask, was he playing sports?

        Under Dayton's policy, athletes' grades are checked every two weeks, and they must sit out for at least a week if they are failing more than one class.

        The rule has never affected Mr. Hill. This season, for instance, he was failing only math — not enough to bench him.

        Furthermore, Dayton High doesn't punish truants by kicking them off teams.

        The school handbook says students will be given detention when they are tardy, and habitual offenders may lose the right to participate in activities.

        But neither of those policies is enforced, Mr. Volter says. Detention didn't work because students failed to show up. If they are denied athletics, they may stop coming to school, he says.

Another way
        Other schools take a more aggressive approach.

        At Lloyd High School in Erlanger, for instance, students get in-school suspension for every unexcused absence. After three such suspensions in a season, athletes are off the team, an assistant principal says. In two years, he can't recall that ever happening.

        In Dayton, chronic truants are referred to the district's truancy officer, who makes home visits and sometimes files charges. But the court process can take months and isn't very effective with older students.

        Clearly, Dayton High School needs to tighten its attendance policy. As it happens, a committee will review the rules this summer.

        Meanwhile, I hope Mr. Hill earns his English credit and gets his diploma. Ultimately, it's his responsibility to succeed in life.

        Karen Samples can be reached at