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Choking incident prompts Stafford to set tough code for athletes
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Choking incident prompts Stafford to set tough code for athletes


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For the first time, the Stafford County School Board has set in place division-wide expectations for athletes.

The approval of the new athletic code of conduct comes nearly eight months after a Brooke Point High School football player was choked from behind by another player in the locker room and suffered a concussion when he fell and struck a locker. The Sheriff’s Office investigated the Oct. 23 incident, but no charges were filed.

“I think there was a need for it, given recent events at some of our high schools. There have been a couple of different incidents,” said School Board member Irene Egan, whose district includes Brooke Point students and parents.

The code of conduct, approved last week by the School Board, covers activities on and off campus, ranging from classroom performance to locker-room behavior to social media use. It also sets guidelines on reporting and handling concussions and other health concerns.

It is particularly hard on locker-room activity of the type that occurred at Brooke Point, setting a zero-tolerance policy for touching, slapping and similar behavior.

Stafford schools spokeswoman Valerie Cottongim said that athletic standards were previously set at the school level. The Virginia High School League already required some training on concussions and heat and hydration, among other things.

But never has the school system established a code for athletes across the division.

Fredericksburg’s James Monroe High School has an athletic handbook, concussion policies and requires athletes to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average, among other things.

The Spotsylvania County school system does not have a separate code of conduct for athletes, but does describe sportsmanship expectations in its student code and requires concussion evaluations.

“We do a parent–athlete meeting for each sport and at that meeting, they go over expectations,” school spokesperson Rene Daniels said. “There is nothing in writing per se that they hand out to them.”

In the wake of the Brooke Point incident, Stafford Superintendent Bruce Benson called for a division-wide athletic code, and School Board members agreed.

“This is certainly a document that is long overdue. I have requested this for a number of years,” School Board member Dana Reinboldt said during a recent board meeting.

The 64-page code was reviewed by Benson and other school officials before being approved. It requires all athletes and their parents to sign statements of understanding on concussions, heat and hydration and on the code itself. They will also be required to report their concussion history.

“We want it to have a serious kind of feeling, a contract kind of feeling,” said Coordinator of Health, Physical Education and Driver Education Michael Justice, who began crafting the document in October.

Benson states in the first page of the document that athletic participation is not a right and a failure to meet expectations will result in disciplinary action.

To participate in sports, students must attend all classes on the day of an event, can’t be charged with what would be considered a crime if committed by an adult and can’t be suspended. Classroom behavior is expected to be “exemplary,” according to the code, and the student–athlete has to be enrolled in and passing at least five courses.

Justice stressed that the document has expectations for coaches and parents, too.

Coaches are expected to meet with athletes on locker-room behavior, inform them of anti-bullying and hazing policies and create a plan for locker-room supervision, among other things.

The School Board decided to add a zero-tolerance policy to the locker-room behavior section. The zero tolerance applies to “snapping of towels, touching, slapping, hitting and any other like behavior.” Such behavior may be considered harassment, assault or assault and battery, the code reads.

“I think horseplay has been allowed and you know, kids will be kids and sometimes horseplay gets out of control and out of hand and we end up with unintentional injuries,” Egan said.

“This puts accountability on students but also on coaches and the parents. As a School Board member, safety is paramount and first and foremost on my mind.”

Emails among school officials obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that on the day of the choking incident, 13 other players were slap-boxing, wrestling or giving others “birthday punches” in the locker room after practice.

School Board member Scott Hirons initially asked for something more comprehensive in the locker-room section such as a zero-tolerance policy for horseplay. Justice said he didn’t want to use that word.

The locker-room incident was initially described last year by school officials as horseplay gone wrong. They later clarified that the student who was choked was not a willing participant.

Justice said instead of using a label, he preferred to give examples of behavior that won’t be tolerated.

“Then we would almost have to go as specific as the choking game, the Indian rub,” Hirons said.

The board ended up passing a statement that gave additional examples for inappropriate locker-room behavior. The rules already included a statement saying that bullying and hazing actions won’t be tolerated.

The board also added a clause detailing the procedure for how inappropriate behavior will be reported, investigated and enforced.

School principals are required by state law to report incidents of assault and other offenses to the Sheriff’s Office, but the Sheriff’s Office learned of the Brooke Point incident through a media report six days afterward and then opened an investigation.

Brooke Point’s administration handled the investigation in-house, relying on sections of the student code of conduct that don’t require reports to law enforcement.

One bullet point within the athletic code states that athletes will be encouraged to communicate to their coach or trainer if they notice a teammate displaying signs of a concussion-related injury.

Last fall, officials said that the inaction of players when their teammate suffered from a concussion was one of the biggest factors in canceling the team’s game against North Stafford.

Egan also was successful in prohibiting cellphone use in locker rooms.

In driving home his point that the code addresses the larger picture for athletes, Benson pointed out a section that imposes punishments for hurtful, inappropriate, derogatory or harassing social media use by athletes.

The School Board will consider widening the scope of the document to include all extracurricular groups at a later date.

​Vanessa Remmers: 540.735.1975

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