Columns & Blogs

To throw the book at prep athletes, first you need one

Derek Wieting will suit up for the Meridian High basketball team this week in the 5A boys state tournament.

He'll do so weeks after reaching a plea agreement with Ada County prosecutors, who charged the high school senior with felony aiding and abetting the lewd conduct of a victim under the age of 16, felony video voyeurism and conspiracy to commit a crime in January. Because the Juvenile Court judge sealed the case, we don't know the terms of the deal.

He'll get to play, in part, because the Meridian School District has no policy claiming that he can't.

The district has clear and stiff penalties for students who are "documented or cited by law enforcement for use, possession or distribution" of alcohol, drugs or tobacco.

But it doesn't have a policy that deals with students charged with other criminal offenses.

At least not yet.

The district is now scrambling to get a policy put together, hopefully before the start of school next fall.

"It's something we've been looking at, but this has helped us identify a need that we have within our athletics and activities participation guidelines," district activities director Scott Stuart said. "It's something we are concerned about."

And they should be.

Without a policy, the school district is limited in its response to such situations. Legally, it doesn't have much standing if it were to act forcefully.

Instead of dealing with the issue by the book, a reaction that no one could have quibbled with, the district has allowed the story to fester simply because it has no book.

Imagine if an athlete, any athlete, in the Meridian School District had been charged with possession of alcohol. The school would have relied on its "student activities drug and alcohol policy" for a clear course of action.

The athlete, in compliance with the policy, would have been ineligible for participation for 28 days. After 14 days, the student would be allowed to return to practice. And the student and his or her parents would have other conditions to meet.

It's all laid out in the handbook.

The story would be over.

A fair punishment, one the athlete was aware of before the season began, was handed down. Having served time, the student could return to the team without anyone thinking (or saying) he or she got preferential treatment.

There's no appearance of impropriety.

If such a policy were in place in this case, the story would have simply disappeared — as much of the community wishes it would. Now the case and the story have overshadowed the Warriors' entire season, one in which they'll finish among the top eight teams in the state.

Since no one at Meridian is able to discuss what, if any, punishments were handed down by the school in this case, the public perception is that another star athlete has been given preferential treatment — even if he hasn't.

No one can say they didn't have fair warning that a situation like this could occur anywhere.

In 1999, Lapwai High senior Tui Moliga played in the state tournament despite facing charges related to the death of a 12-year-old. Moliga pleaded innocent and, because his legal case had not yet played out, he was allowed to play. In April of that year, after the state tournament, Moliga pleaded guilty to a felony charge, first- degree rendering criminal assistance, and faced up to eight months in prison. Lapwai went two-and-out in the state tournament.

Last fall, Boise State allowed Cam Hall to take the field — after a two-game suspension imposed by the student conduct committee — despite his role in a traffic accident that killed three people. Hall pleaded guilty to a felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident in February and is awaiting sentencing.

Without a doubt, due process and innocent until proven guilty are values worth protecting. And to have an athlete miss his senior season because of an unfounded charge is itself nearly criminal.

That's why adopting a sensible policy is the best course of action.

The Boise School District has a very general article in its code of conduct for participation in extracurricular activities to deal with criminal cases.

It allows for barring students from participation if "it reasonably appears" that the student "has been involved in drug use or any other criminal conduct in any location, either on or off campus, during the scholastic year."

In essence, no criminal charges have to be filed and no guilty verdict is needed for the school to discipline the student. The policy does allow for an appeal process if the suspension is longer than nine calendar days. And it gives, rightly so, plenty of latitude to the school to deal with each situation differently.

"It, at least, gives us some type of motor to move on an incident," said Jim Carberry, the Boise School District's activities director. "We have something to fall back on."

Will such a policy stop teen-agers from making bad decisions?

Not a chance. Teenagers make them all the time. And, news flash, poor decision-making extends far beyond that for everyone.

But a policy, even one as broad as Boise's, would offer coaches and administrators a blueprint for handling such situations.

In the end, it would lead to more fairness, more transparency and fewer headaches for everyone involved — athletes included.