Vineyard high school athlete not benched by felony charges
Felony charges do not affect a student's ability to participate in team sports, school officials explained at the monthly meeting of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) District school committee Monday night. That exemption does not apply to alcohol, drug use or smoking, activities that would result in an immediate loss of eligibility.
The discussion of athletic eligibility came during the public portion of the meeting. The Times asked school committee chairman Priscilla Sylvia of Oak Bluffs to explain the apparent disciplinary discrepancy in light of the arraignment on December 17 of Deshawn James, 18, a member of the varsity basketball team, on three counts of burglary and larceny following an investigation by Oak Bluffs Police into multiple thefts of cash from the same house. Mr. James has continued to play on the team.
According to the student handbook regarding athletics, any student caught with tobacco, alcohol, or drugs shall lose his or her eligibility to play sports for a specified period of time, once the principal confirms the violation, and following an opportunity for the student to be heard. The Times asked whether a similar policy applies to a student arraigned on felony charges.
With high school principal Stephen Nixon looking on, superintendent of schools James Weiss fielded the question.
"The MIAA [Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association] has a very specific policy that deals with drugs and alcohol, and the website and the student handbook reflect the MIAA policy," Mr. Weiss said. "They do not have a similar policy for a range of other possible issues, but that one they do address.
"Certainly, there are a series of rules and consequences here at the high school," he added. "And as Dr. Nixon would indicate, he takes appropriate action when students violate those rules, and it could include being not allowed to continue in sports, it could be exclusion from school, it could be detentions and suspensions and all kinds of things."
Mr. Weiss said whatever action is taken is based on the specific incident. "And, we look at the individual and at the situation," he said. "And of course, due process. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty."
The Times pointed out that according to the Oak Bluffs police report, Mr. James admitted he had entered the house to steal cash.
"That's what the newspaper reported, but from our point of view, until there's an action at the court level, we're not going to take any action," Mr. Weiss said.
Asked if any high school officials had talked to Mr. James to ask him if he had committed the crimes, school leaders said no and explained why.
"That wouldn't be our role at all," Mr. Weiss said.
"That's unrelated to the school," Ms. Sylvia added.
"The state law in the Commonwealth deals with people who are convicted of felonies or who present a clear and utter danger for the school or themselves after they've been accused," Mr. Weiss continued. "So Dr. Nixon and his staff here look at that and make an appropriate decision."
The student code of conduct does reference felony charges, but only in relation to suspension from school and not athletics.
According to the student handbook, there are five categories of offenses. Level five offenses that may result in suspension and/or expulsion include, "Charges of a felony that, in the opinion of the principal, may disrupt the educational process."
In a follow-up telephone conversation and email exchange Tuesday, Mr. Nixon said state law does not allow him to expel a student charged with a felony until convicted.
Asked to speak specifically to the question of participation in team sports and the contrast between the penalties for substance use versus a felony charge, Mr. Nixon replied, "As far as sports are concerned, I need to reiterate what Dr. Weiss said Tuesday night. We follow MIAA rules in regards to sports. There is a clear suspension policy from that organization as to the use of drugs and alcohol, but there is no suspension criteria for crimes."
Mr. Nixon did not directly answer the question of whether or not he had requested a copy of the police report. "We don't always get the police reports from incidents, because if there is a court process involved, we usually wait for the outcome and the court's decision," he said.
He added, "As Dr. Weiss said at the meeting last night, everyone is presumed innocent until that happens. When the court renders its decision, we will look at that and can act from there."
Asked if he has spoken to Mr. James about the felony charges, Mr. Nixon said he is sure there are plenty of adults in the high school that have had discussions with him, but there have been none so far that relate to any formal disciplinary action by the school.
"There are all kinds of different categories of discussions and meetings, and we have to wait for the court process to play out to determine what they would be," Mr. Nixon said.