Middle schoolers sidelined after policy change
October 5, 2010
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION FUTENMA, Okinawa – A year ago, then-seventh-grader Seira Sanchez would have been out on Habu Trail’s 3.1-mile course, running cross country with older high school runners. Not to score team points or to medal, but to gauge how well she does against high school competition and feed her running passion.
Today, the Ryukyu Middle School eighth-grader can only practice with Kadena’s high school team. A rule barring middle-schoolers from entering high-school cross country, tennis, track and wrestling events went into effect in DODDS-Pacific for school year 2010-11. Until this year, they could enter, but only on a non-scoring, exhibition basis.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Sanchez said of hearing the news, adding that she used to be obese until three years ago when she began running. “I dropped my weight really quickly. That really encouraged me to run. They should either give us a (middle-school) team or let us run again.”
DODDS officials say the change was made for several reasons:
-- The safety and well-being of middle-school athletes, who often lack the physical development, maturity and judgment of older students.
-- Concerns over supervision, as high school coaches are primarily responsible for and focused on their high school athletes.
-- Concerns over what DODDS-Pacific spokesman Charly Hoff termed the appearance of financial “double-dipping.” Congress appropriates funds for middle school-aged students to base youth centers and MWR programs, which serve as development and preparation for high school competition.
“Middle schoolers competing with high schoolers, that crossover, we just don’t think it’s appropriate,” Hoff said.
“Logistics, travel, eighth-graders spending time with students at a different maturity level, coaches having to keep an eye on middle-school students when they have their high schoolers to focus on. (And) we needed to make sure we were doing right by the appropriation law, that we weren’t essentially double-funding an activity.”
Though it affects a small pool of people, the ruling has proven widely unpopular with coaches, middle- and high-school athletes and parents.
At least one coach in Korea says it’s kept him from fielding a complete cross-country team. One parent group on Okinawa has confronted DODDS Pacific director Diana Ohman via e-mail over the issue and plans to bring it up at an Okinawa district advisory council meeting this week.
“Last year, the policy was beneficial to middle schoolers at little or no cost to DODDS,” said Kathleen Lennard, a Navy dependent spouse who has two daughters running at Kadena.
“The high schoolers love having them run. There’s no one at a disadvantage. … They don’t impact the score, the outcome, any of those dynamics. They’re just getting the opportunity to develop as athletes. I don’t think we should shut that off.”
Kadena senior Jacob Bishop, who ran at Zama Middle School in Japan alongside now-Air Force Academy sophomore Andrew Quallio, called the change “ridiculous” and that running middle school “helped me get to where I am today. It teaches you to be a part of a team.”
Sanchez’s older brother, Kadena senior Tomas Sanchez, said letting youngsters run “keeps kids out of trouble and off the couch. She can compare herself to the high schoolers and (get) more motivation for later years,” he said.
Lennard and her parents group planning to meet with Okinawa district leadership say all they’re interested in is “to revisit the policy, realize that it’s a good thing and reinstate the old policy.”
“We just hope reason will prevail,” Lennard said, adding that there is “so much research” that point to “positive benefits” of sports at an adolescent age.
But a quick glance at the World Wide Web reveals just as many studies showing developmental liabilities, such as social and maturity issues, stress, anxiety and bodily injury, as there are studies showing developmental benefits, such as self-esteem, achievement and fitness.
DODDS officials say they realize the ruling “might not be the popular answer, but we still have to do the right thing,” Hoff said.
While insisting that DODDS wants middle-school students “to be active” in sports and lead healthy lifestyles, “we wanted to ensure that they were in age-appropriate activities,” DODDS-Pacific athletics coordinator Don Hobbs said.
Prior policies did allow middle-school students to participate as long as they weren’t replacing an eligible high school student, Hobbs said. Without citing specific examples, Hobbs said he found some instances when “that was not necessarily being followed.”
“It wasn’t a serious problem, but one that popped up enough on occasions to be addressed. … You can just imagine that they are the smaller schools.”
Some coaches contacted by Stars and Stripes said they would have - or are having - difficulty filling out teams without being able to use middle school students. But those students couldn’t technically be used to fill out any teams under the old rules either. Middle schoolers could participate, but their individual results didn’t count and couldn’t be used for team scores.
If high schools were using middle schoolers to make teams official or counting their results, they weren’t following the rules. No one has officially told Stars and Stripes that was the case.
Some coaches say in some cases, middle school students have been used to fill out teams to provide competition. If they weren’t included, high school students from opposing schools would have no one to compete against. In those cases, the teams featuring middle schoolers would have officially forfeited, no matter what the results actually were.
If the change had happened in 2009-10, Daegu tennis coach Ed Thompson says he would have lost both his girls double pairs. “This year, we have enough – beginners but who are willing to learn,” he said.
Such is not the case with Daegu’s and Zama American’s cross country teams, which field three runners each; Division II’s limit is four boys and four girls for Far East meets.
“With middle schoolers, we’d have had a much better shot at it,” Daegu coach Larry Knierim said, adding that his small community doesn’t have wrestling, track, tennis and cross-country programs at the youth level.
“There’s no incentive for them to run if they can only practice,” Knierim said. “It’s about developing a good program and good habits. You take sports away from a small community, it’s hard to find positive outlets like sports.”
Until this year, DODDS Pacific’s policy mirrored DODDS Europe’s. Athletics coordinator Karen Seadore said Europe’s policy remains the same as it has in her 26 years there – 7th and 8th graders may participate as exhibition entrants, non-scoring and non-medaling.
National Federation of State High School Associations “allow individual states to make their own policies,” Hobbs said, adding that one state, Florida, permits middle school runners to participate at so-called “unit schools,” K through 12 or 7 through 12.
Athletic.net, a Web site devoted to keeping track and cross-country records from coast to coast and 172 overseas locations, shows 1,088 middle-school teams from 31 states registered.
Only North Dakota, an Athletic.net official said in an e-mail, allows middle schoolers to race with high schoolers and vice versa but mainly due to a lack of available bodies. Oregon and other states specifically disallow it, as it gives those athletes an unfair advantage compared to other middle school athletes who don’t compete in high school races.
A cross section of Pacific coaches in all the sports affected by the change indicated almost no incidents of what DODDS officials say they’re trying to prevent involving maturity and development issues.
“We’ve never had anything like that before,” said Joe Taitano, who has coached Guam High’s cross country team and at Guam public schools for 30 years. Having middle schoolers is “part of the development process we have on the island.”
Steve Schrock has coached wrestling on Okinawa for 12 years and in Italy for seven and has had eighth-graders in the wrestling room “all the time,” he said. “Their well being is enhanced by that competition.”
Craig Eby, cross-country and track coach at Christian Academy Japan for three decades, says there has “never been a drawback” having middle schoolers around.
However, Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools meets are conducted separately at the same site: high school varsity, JV and middle school. The only race run concurrently is the 3,000-meter in track, and usually a middle schooler or two reach the top five, Eby said.
“It’s a good opportunity for them to see leadership in action,” Eby said. “The kids rise to the occasion and the seniors set the example. I’ve had kids stick with me for seven years, start with me in the sixth grade, have a good experience and want to see it completely through.”
Still, in at least one league, the Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference, teams at the large-school level are being discouraged from adding middle schoolers except as a last resort.
Longtime Taejon Christian International athletics director David Suhs said KAIAC’s philosophy agrees with that of DODDS in that middle schoolers may “not yet be emotionally and socially ready to be in a setting with high school athletes.”
Yokota wrestling coach Brian Kitts said each group’s integrity is important to maintain. “Somewhere, you have to draw the line,” he said.
Asked if waivers or other exceptions can be made for smaller schools, Hoff said, “I don’t think there’s a way to do it without putting the safety and well-being of those kids first, and again the appropriations concerns,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean it can’t be addressed and talked about,” Hoff said, adding Hobbs and the Far East Activities Council would have to discuss it and come to a final decision.
If there is enough interest and demand, Hobbs said middle-school parents, coaches and administrators could look into forming after-school clubs in each sport.
“But they have to take the initiative to work on it,” he said. “Some schools have after-school clubs. It’s on a limited basis, but they do have those activities. If they want to look into that, maybe they would look into that.”