Athletes reinstated after being ruled ineligible for games
By Ann McCreary
When about two dozen Liberty Bell High School students chose to join a nationwide student walkout on Friday (April 20) to protest gun violence in schools, they thought they were demonstrating the kind of critical thinking, commitment and passion that they have been encouraged to develop.
The initial response by school administrators to their act of protest caught them by surprise, however, according to several members of the Liberty Bell boys’ soccer team.
When they returned to campus in the afternoon for their regular practice, the athletes were told they were ineligible to practice or play in the game the next day because they had an unexcused absence, even though most of their parents had called the school approving their participation in the walkout.
By Saturday morning, the decision to prohibit the student athletes from playing had been rescinded by Superintendent Tom Venable, and most students were able to participate in their scheduled soccer, baseball and track events.
School officials were taken by surprise when students left campus, Venable said Monday (April 23). “We’ve known about the nationwide walkout for quite some time but hadn’t heard students or staff or community members talk about a planned activity,” he said. “The reasons I chose to reinstate the student athletes is I felt like we hadn’t been clear in advance of that day what our expectations [of students] were.”
Some students involved in the walkout acknowledged that they could have done a better job of letting school officials know in advance that they intended to leave the campus at 10 a.m., the official start of the walkout held on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting. A student body officer discussed the walkout with Liberty Bell Principal Deborah DeKalb earlier in the morning, and was informed that walking out without prior parent permission would result in an unplanned absence, Venable said.
“I do agree the students could have done more to contact the school,” said Cade Quigley, a senior and soccer team member. “We told them we were planning on doing it only an hour before. I’m not saying the students are completely faultless.”
The lack of communication on both sides led to some confusion and hard feelings among students, and some parents, Friday afternoon. When eight soccer team members arrived at practice after school, they were met by the school’s athletic director, Chase Rost, who said their absence from school made them ineligible to practice or play in the next game, based on the school handbook rules regarding unexcused or unplanned absences from school.
The decision applied to students whose parents had called the school and given permission as well as students whose parents did not call the school. DeKalb said the parents who called to give permission for their students to walk out contacted the school after the students had left campus.
After being told they were ineligible for soccer practice Friday, the boys went to another field on campus and held their own practice, where they took time to talk about their situation. “We made the argument that we were being political,” said Nicholas Fitzmaurice, a junior. “We’re supporting legislation against guns because we think people should be safe.”
Quigley said he found irony in the administration’s actions, considering the emphasis placed by the district through the International Baccalaureate program on students becoming “reflective inquirers, thinkers, who create their own opinions … to prepare for the world out there.”
Students said they felt they were being “punished” by school officials on Friday for acting on the characteristics that the district is encouraging. “Their action is not supporting what they are saying. It’s contradicting the whole idea,” Quigley said. “Students should be able to speak their own ideas and pursue them.”
The students said they and their fellow students at Liberty Bell High School don’t feel shielded from the possibility of school violence that has occurred elsewhere in the nation. “We need to do something about [gun] legislation and hate in general. But it’s hard to do that when you’re in fear,” said Eden Davis, a senior.
Mike Baerveldt, who coaches the boys’ soccer team, said Friday that the students who walked out “are good students and active in a lot of different ways. They are going to be the leaders of tomorrow and they’re showing their leadership now. These kids are taking a political stand because they’re upset and rightly so.”
“The only thing that could have been done differently,” he said, “is to let the administration and teachers know ahead of time. I think if they had made plans ahead of time, it could have been an excused activity.”
In an email sent to teachers and staff Monday, Venable explained why he decided to reinstate the student athletes and allow them to play. He said he learned of the situation Friday evening, and spent much of Friday night and Saturday morning talking to coaches, students, parents and administrators to assess the situation. He said he also wanted to make sure his decision didn’t violate Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rules.
Student athletes are required to read and sign a school handbook that explains expectations and consequences, and parents and students also have a responsibility to notify the school of any changes in attendance in advance “for the safety of our students and to be able to account for their whereabouts,” Venable said.
“That being said, as your superintendent, this one is squarely on me and I take full responsibility,” Venable said in his email. “I believe I should have anticipated this event, reached out to our students, and clearly communicated the expectations to our students, staff and parents in advance of the event.”
The students’ decision to participate in the walkout and their interest in the issue of school safety is consistent with the goals of the district, Venable said in an interview Monday. “We want students, per our district’s vision, to initiate meaningful and authentic action as responsible citizens. We also want them to acknowledge the responsibility and consequences that come with actions,” he said.
Protests of all types, he added, “serve as planned disruptions, and with those disruptions there are consequences. We want to help students understand that responsibility.”
Some classes had only a handful of students because of the walkout. Venable said the high school officials “responded appropriately” Friday, but said that the district “could have done a better job of reaching out in anticipation [of the march] given the context we are living in. It’s hard not to feel uneasy given the school violence that has occurred on campuses across the country.”
Some of the students who walked out said they wanted to keep district administrators from becoming involved in last week’s walkout, because they felt the administration had become too involved in planning a March 14 walkout at Liberty Bell. That event was held following the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and teachers were killed.
The students said they wanted that first walkout to make a statement for stronger gun control to curb school violence, but school officials decided the event should be a memorial for the students and teachers who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“The school took over the other walkout … and made it a remembrance,” said Michael Mott, a junior. “We didn’t want that to happen this time.”
“We did receive some criticism after the March 14 event for getting too involved,” Venable said. He said the district wanted to recognize that not all students feel the same about the gun control issue. The March event lasted about 17 minutes, and Liberty Bell students read tributes to each of the 17 people who died in the Parkland shooting.
The soccer players said in retrospect that it would have been good for students to organize some type of activity related to the issue of school shootings and gun violence during last Friday’s walkout. One student said he did homework after he left school, another said he had a conversation about gun control with a few other students.
School officials said that 26 students, mostly juniors and seniors, are believed to have participated in the walkout. Most were athletes, Rost said. Venable made the decision to allow students to participate in sports at 9 a.m. Saturday. Most members of the soccer, baseball and tennis teams were notified that they could play before their games began.
However, the track team left on a bus at 7 a.m. and one student did not receive word in time to travel with the team to the meet. “I will meet with that person individually to apologize for the district for our part in the confusion,” Venable said.
Quigley said he thinks teenagers deserve more credit than they get for their ability to understand and act on significant issues. That belief is reinforced by his senior project, which examines “neurological developments in the teenage brain and how it affects social development,” he said.
“I think that students are a lot more aware than people realize of issues in the world. And I think that students now believe they can make an impact on our legislatures and culture in general.”
“I’m thrilled to be superintendent of a district that has caring and compassionate students that do want to act,” Venable said. Last week’s experience with the walkout provides a learning opportunity for both students and administrators, Venable said.
“In an effort to support students who think critically, we more closely approximate real life and that’s not going to always be perfect, and occasionally [will be] downright messy,” he said.