No pass, no play, no sense

August 10, 1996|By Andrew Ratner

TO THE MEMBERS of the Howard County Board of Education contemplating a "no pass, no play" rule for students to be eligible for extracurricular activities, I have two words: Pepper spray.

It was impossible to miss the hubbub in this area last spring over Jodie Ulrich. She was the Baltimore County high schooler who was expelled because a pepper spray canister she kept for protection after her night job was set off in school. Until a judge returned her to class, officials defended the expulsion on the grounds that she had technically violated their no-weapons rule.

Howard officials seem just as well-meaning about emphasizing academics as were their counterparts in Baltimore County about keeping dangerous items out of schools. And they may fall into the same trap.

The board in suburban Howard is now weighing a staff proposal that would forbid students from participating in interscholastic sports, school band, the yearbook staff or other activities unless they have a 2.0 grade point average and -- here's the kicker -- fail no courses. It would be the most stringent such rule in Maryland. A few other systems require students to maintain a 2.0 average, but allow at least one failing grade.

Educators and parents agree that setting firm parameters and high standards for young people is important. They're right. But as any mechanic will tell you, twist a bolt too tight and it'll snap.

If that sounds like cornball wisdom worthy of H. Ross Perot, that's appropriate. It was Mr. Perot who pushed through a "no pass, no play" rule in Texas in 1984. The reform made national news, but many considered it blasphemy in that hotbed of prep football.

Texas yawned

"When I went across the state of Texas to talk about declining test scores, Texas yawned," Mr. Perot recalled a few years ago. "But when I whispered 'football,' Texas roared." In 1984, the Texas legislature approved a law that required students to receive passing grades of 70 in their courses, or they could not practice or play for their school teams for six weeks.

But educators who were at first supportive saw negative repercussions. They were losing to gangs many at-risk kids, whose status on teams, like it or not, had kept them coming to school. Without sports, these kids had no hook.

Last year, Texas relaxed "no pass, no play." Now, students are only ineligible for three weeks if they improve their grades and may continue to practice throughout. Los Angeles also scrapped a requirement for extracurricular participation approved just a few years earlier.

Howard board members might want to ask: If everyone else is zigging, why are we zagging? If Howard approves this rule, it is guaranteed that some unforeseen case will leave egg on its face.

The biggest deception of "no pass, no play" is that it plays off a "dumb jock" stereotype. Of Howard's 4,250 student-athletes, only an estimated 200 -- 5 percent -- would be in jeopardy if the vTC proposed rule gets approved. Studies from Minnesota to North Carolina conclude that student-athletes, as a whole, have better grades, attendance and graduation rates than the student body at large.

Teen-agers do need to be made to understand that academics, not sports, will define their success as adults. Impressionable youth need to be reminded that $100 million contracts like Shaquille O'Neal's are as unreal as finding a genie in a bottle. But failure isn't always due to lack of effort. School systems do a disservice to students by punishing them for flunking a course.

Should we insist on zero tolerance for drugs? Yes. Zero tolerance for violence? Absolutely. But zero tolerance for failure? It's wrong, even un-American.

Andrew Ratner is director for zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/10/96

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