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Skaneateles BOE 3-5-2019

Jerry Morrissey, the father of a middle school student who wanted to play junior varsity lacrosse this spring, addresses the Skaneateles Central School District Board of Education at a board meeting Tuesday.

SKANEATELES — The Skaneateles Central School District Board of Education was packed with people Tuesday night arguing against a district athletic policy for determining if middle school students can compete at the high school level. 

Four middle school students were recently determined to have not reached the physical maturity requirements for junior varsity lacrosse by Dr. Gail Keenen, the district medical director and a family practitioner. Parents and students told the board the process for making those determinations was flawed, but the district said it is following state regulations and would not be reversing the decisions or changing the policy.

The state Education Department's Athletic Placement Process outlines procedures for determining if seventh- or eighth-grade students can join a district's high school junior varsity or varsity team. The district approved its own current athletic placement policies — which the district said complies with the state's — in summer 2018.

Kathryn Morrissey, who was one of the students deemed not ready for JV lacrosse, said she had written a letter about her experience. She said her score on the Tanner Scale — a physical maturity assessment — had prevented her from trying out for junior varsity lacrosse.

"I had two exams given after school to evaluate my Tanner score. The first exam was focused on one thing. The only question the doctor asked me. 'Do you have your period?' That was it. That was all she asked about my body," Morrissey told the board. A second exam determined her body mass index.

Morrissey said she hadn't had her period yet, but felt that question and her body mass index were the deciding factors in whether she could try out or not. She said her body mass index was determined to be two points too low.

"So I'm just confused," she said. "Because for a girl like me, people are telling me to stay active, that it's a good thing to be tall. I need to be skinny and be athletic. It's a great thing to be fit. So I'm just confused, because being fit is now a bad thing. What message do you think this is sending to girls? All girls being put through this process, and being examined and judged in uncomfortable ways. It just doesn't feel good and it's not right."

She said she didn't feel modified lacrosse was a good fit for her when she played, and said she "learned that a policy can prevent me from my dreams, even when I've done my best."

Later, Kathryn became so overcome with tears that her mother, Kathleen Morrissey, finished reading her daughter's statement.

Ella Bobbett, another student involved, also was occasionally fighting back tears as she spoke to the board.

"I would like to ask one question: What does our physical maturity have to do with our ability to play lacrosse? Because this is the way we are. We can't do anything to change how tall we are, when we begin our menstrual cycle, how much we weigh. We have no control over this," she said. 

Between the tears, she continued.

"The effect that this has had on all of us — every single one of us — has been heartbreaking. So heartbreaking that it's really hard to put it into words, but I believe as a school and as a community and really, as a family, we can fix this. We can fix this for our community and for our athletic program and for our school," Bobbett said. 

Bobbett and Morrissey were among the dozens of students, family members and community members who attended the meeting, with standing-room only available by the time the proceeding began. Around 20 people spoke during the meeting's two comment sections.

Before the public comments, the district said any questions about district personnel, including the medical director, would not be permitted. Superintendent Lynda Quick also introduced Kristine Lanchantin, a partner at the Girvin & Ferlazzo PC law firm in Albany, "who is representing the district in this matter," Quick said.

The district had received litigation threats, so Lanchantin was "safeguarding the district from liability and future obligations, so she is here to address any legal concerns or issues as deemed necessary," Quick said.

After the first public comment period, board president Susan Murphy thanked all the people who sent in letters and had spoken at the meeting up to that point before reading a statement, which was approved by every board member except Kerry Brogan.

The district said the state's placement process involves various components for seventh-to-eighth grade students to move on to a high school team, including a medical clearance requirement. This clearance requirement, according to the state's policies, determines if a student has a physical development level that may minimize the possibility that the student will hurt themselves while playing the sport and at the level they are being evaluated for. The state instructs the medical director to factor in the student's height, weight, muscle mass and rating under the Tanner Scale compared to the other athletes that students would be competing against, the state policies say. The process ends "if the student is not approved by the medical director to proceed," under the state regulations.

The statement said the district has received requests to alter the policy to allow a student's personal physician perform the medical clearance determination, but the district said this isn't permitted by the state.

The district's legal counsel has determined its policies are within the law, the statement said, adding that the district has "every confidence in Dr. Keenen’s medical training and expertise."

Brogan read from her own statement and began by referring to the board, saying, "Every single person up here are good people and they care about the kids. You elected good people," but said she did not support the board's statement, which prompted a long string of claps from the audience.

Quick said Wednesday that she acknowledged the "difficult circumstances" of the situation and said there may have been some misunderstanding from community members over the policies.

While Quick said she believes one of the questions Keenen asked was if the students had experienced their period, she believed that was connected to an overall health assessment, saying that a student having an early or late onset period could point to a health issue.

"I believe she would tell you that was not the decisive factor," Quick said.

Quick said the board tried "not to react to the emotions" over the meeting. "I'm sure the board will have future discussions on the policy and its future implementations."

Some community members at Tuesday's meeting said they felt the policies unfairly targeted girls over boys, but Quick disputed that in a statement Wednesday. Though the Tanner Scale numbers are different for boys and girls, Quick said that is due to the timing of maturity between the two. She said this is explained in the state's guidelines, and parents who don't agree with the numbers used or the process should address their concerns with the state Education Department.

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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