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MUHS saps school spirit

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What is it in Middlebury’s water that makes town and school officials react like Nazis to the community’s youth and their related activities?

OK. That’s a loaded and unfair question, but let me explain: The latest incident happened this past week when a parent of a high school basketball player was booted out of the game at half time because he was leading other students and adults in cheering for the Tigers. The alleged violation was orchestrating a waving of the fans’ collective hands and arms (foot-stomping is no longer allowed) in support of their team. The parent who took the lead was later escorted out of the bleachers by a local policeman to talk to Middlebury Union High School Principal Bill Lawson, and then told not to return to his seat. The police log listed the incident as dealing with a fan who was annoying other fans around him and the opposing team. No joke.

The response from those most closely involved — other parents and fans in the auditorium — was outrage at a school policy that is overzealous and, worse, that is zapping the spirit out of MUHS athletics. About 30 athletes and sports boosters (parents) appealed to the MUHS school board on Tuesday to ease up on policies that one parent said is “driving students away” from the games and is now causing “loyal fans to rebel.” (See story Page 1A.)

“When there are less than two dozen students who show up for a big game and the visiting team has a larger cheering section than the home team, something is clearly amiss,” said area resident Linda Pitkin, who co-authored a letter to the school board urging members to review school policy.

Two-bits, four-bits, six-bits a dollar (stomp, stomp, stomp), all for Linda and team, stand up and holler! (Oh, sorry, that’s not allowed.)

Pitkin and other parents and students upset with the current policies said they recognize the need for crowd restraint when it comes to disrespectful behavior. “We certainly do not want the players, coaches or officials to be taunted or disrespected… and do not wish to limit the administration’s ability to deal with these concerns… However, the current extreme policies have driven away students who feel they won’t have any fun at the games…” (See the full letter at www.addisonindependent.com.)

Furthermore, the letter and parents involved sought to find a workable compromise with the administration. “Please help us open a serious discussion with all the parties, so we can bring out the natural school spirit in our students, allow them to have some good harmless fun and improve their high school experience.”

The parents’ goals — cultivating the student’s natural school spirit, allowing harmless fun and improving their school experience — are right on target.

The administration needs to reassess its goals, which according to Lawson come from UD-3 Superintendent Lee Sease and attempts to assure a “civil and respectful climate” at athletic contests. Not that there’s anything wrong with being civil and respectful, but Sease and crew make a critical mistake when ‘civil and respectful’ replace ‘fun and enthusiasm’ as if the two should never overlap.

But that is what is at the heart of Middlebury’s malaise concerning its teenage citizens. For some reason, Middlebury — both the town and school — has adopted a climate of intolerance for teens. We impose scriptures they have to abide by, but few avenues for fun and exploration. We offer punishment for violations, but few safe harbors in which to grow and learn.

A strict school climate over the past decade or more, for example, has been accompanied by a tough approach by the town toward its teens — police monitoring (some would say harassment) of teenage drivers, the town turning a cold shoulder to suggestions of a skateboarding park, the police busting up even small groups of friends who might congregate on the town green or other public venues, a militant police approach to school parties. Unfortunately, this intolerance has left too many bitter memories for the very same young people we’d love to have return home when they’re ready, and in the meantime we have driven our youth culture underground. (The recent attempt to start a teen center is in reaction to the town’s dilemma and is a good first step in trying to embrace our teens and accept them as full-fledged members of the community.)

What’s the appropriate response?

Ease up a little; relax the police state mentality.

Take it from Middlebury resident, former high school football player, fireman, and Middlebury blue-blood from the get-go, David Shaw: “I’m quite concerned that the athletic department, the principal, and the school board have driven high school athletics off the playing field, off the gymnasium floor and out into the streets,” Shaw told the school board. “These kids are being regulated right out of the sport. Somebody is staring at you every moment in the gym, watching your every movement, watching your comments. And then somebody is called on the phone and somebody is sent up to sit next to you to talk about your lack of ethics.” The result? “In the gymnasium, I’ve heard more noise before a communion at a Catholic Church than I hear in a basketball game. It’s funny, but it’s sad.”

Long-time radio broadcaster David Sears, who covers MUHS sports games, added his voice to the chorus of parent’s concerned with the decline in fan involvement. Referring to the fan’s spirit at home games as the “morgue of Middlebury,” he said he’s seen the spirit “continue to deteriorate here at Middlebury in that the continued control of fans has discouraged people from coming.”

The very fact that more than 30 adults and students have petitioned the school board to tackle the lack of school spirit at sporting events is evidence enough that the problem is real. The next hurdle will be getting the board to convince the administration the problem has a serious impact on student life — both academic and extra-curricular. There’s plenty of scholarly evidence that the two go together and it would be a shame if the powers that be — at the superintendent’s office, high school and middle school (where the problem of low school spirit may be even worse) — miss this opportunity to reshape its culture. From that, we can hope, the town will rethink its approach as well.

Angelo S. Lynn

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