Students who hit coaches will face harsher punishment under a new policy the Howard County school board adopted last week to respond to the unprecedented numbers of assaults on coaches last winter.
Under that policy, students who physically assault coaches will be suspended for a minimum of 45 days or the remainder of the semester, whichever is longer. Students will also be barred from any activities for the rest of the semester and the next semester.
"We've been concerned, not only in this county but also in other counties and across America, with the growing tide of assaults on staff members," said Associate Superintendent James McGowan. "I think the coaches' concerns were consistent with where we were at anyway."
The policy mirrors the penalties for students who are caught with drugs or alcohol on school property. It also applies to students who physically assault any school employee, volunteer or contracted person providing services to the school system.
Coaches are pleased with the board's tougher stance.
"I don't know how far this is going to go, but I think it's a step in the right direction," said David Greenberg, a girls' basketball coach who last week transferred from Mount Hebron High School to Centennial High School.
"At least the message is going to be heard that [students] are going to face consequences when they assault coaches. Things got out of control during the winter season."
Mr. Greenberg and another coach, Jim Albert of Atholton High School, urged the board to adopt the stricter policy in the spring, after a winter season marred by assaults and violence during and after wrestling matches and basketball games.
In what was considered the worst assault, several Oakland Mills boys basketball players reportedly punched and kicked Mount Hebron assistant basketball coach Chris Robinson, and then shoved him into wooden bleachers. The January incident, which was captured on videotape, forced athletic officials to clear 700 spectators from the Mount Hebron gym, delaying the game 50 minutes.
Coaches also complained of parents who verbally abused and punched them and noted at least one incident of vandalism, in which Oakland Mills coach David Appleby reported his car's rear window smashed.
The incidents led school officials to take another look at their current policy, which many coaches criticized as inconsistent.
Students were suspended for varying numbers of days. Some were not allowed to play for their team, while others were allowed to play the rest of the season and the next season as well.
"At least now you know the student . . . is going to serve a punishment, whereas beforehand, you weren't sure," said Mr. Albert, who coaches boys' basketball. "I don't know if the rule itself will deter them, but at least they will be aware of the penalties."
Other coaches feel the school system has not addressed the problem of parents.
For the most part, "the students aren't attacking the coaches," said Atholton High School football coach Larry Thompson. "The majority of the problem are the parents and outside spectators who bother the coaches."
Mr. Thompson is pursuing a criminal prosecution against parent Lynda Stewart Stovall, who he says punched him in the face during an Atholton basketball game. The case was scheduled for trial in District Court last month, but was postponed until September. Ms. Stovall has counter-filed a battery charge against Mr. Thompson.
School officials are investigating whether they can ban unruly spectators from all matches and games.
The new policy for students comes weeks after Donald Disney, executive supervisor of health and physical education for county schools, presented a list of recommendations aimed at deterring fights and other violent incidents at interscholastic sporting events.
Among the recommendations are changing basketball schedules to allow monitoring of junior varsity games; giving fliers to parents and other spectators saying that during games unruly behavior will not be tolerated; recruiting more teachers to become coaches; and conducting workshops to make student athletes aware of good sportsmanship.
The recommendations were drawn up by a group of 16 high school principals and athletic directors.