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Making the Right Decision is a Responsibility…for Everyone

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9News has the story of high school wrestler Blaine Sumner, who was suspended from this weekend’s state high school wrestling championships for pulling a prank on a fellow wrestler.

For the past nine years, Blaine Sumner has been working on one goal — win the state championship in wrestling. He’s the 2nd Ranked Heavyweight Wrestler in the state with a 33-and-1 record, but he’s been suspended from competing for playing a prank. “We just put pizza on a kid’s bed, we didn’t damage the sheets,” Sumner says. The Conifer High School senior admits that at last week’s regional tournament in Grand Junction he and other wrestlers snuck into the room of a teammate. While that person slept, Sumner placed a pizza and a concoction of lotion and coffee grounds on his pillow. The school suspended him for five days, calling the incident hazing. “It has nothing to do with hazing or bullying, harassment,” says Preston Sumner, Blaine’s father. “I can’t understand why a kid should be suspended for five days for that sort of action. There’s a cover-up going on at Conifer High School. My son’s being denied an opportunity he’s worked eight, nine years for and this is not fair.” “I’m not going to judge excessiveness, what I’m going to judge is that we expect our kids to behave,” says Jefferson County Superintendent Cindy Stevenson. She says a five-day suspension is typical for an incident like this. “When our athletes travel, we would expect the same type of behavior that we would expect inside of our schools.” The tournament started Thursday afternoon, but the Sumners got a last minute hearing to see if a judge would issue a temporary restraining order to let Blaine compete…The Sumners’ attorney argued that Blaine was not given due process to defend himself and that the suspension should be delayed until he has time to present evidence on his behalf. Lawyers for Jefferson County say wrestling is a privilege not a right and that to suspend a student, little due process is necessary… …”Today, I think the courts and the school served our children well,” says Superintendent Stevenson. She adds, “I’m very sad for the child. On the other hand, I think that our community has very clear and very high expectations for the children of Jefferson County.” Blaine says he’s sorry that he played a joke on his friend, but he still can’t believe his fate. He says, “This happens every trip that high schoolers take. It’s a harmless prank. It took away my dream.”

I can sympathize with Superintendent Stevenson, because the school district has an obligation to protect students from hazing and to keep them safe. If nothing else, they have to protect themselves from potential lawsuits that could occur from students who get hurt in a hazing incident. I can sympathize with Stevenson because this puts her and the school district in a tough position. But I still think she’s wrong. Unless there is more to this story that hasn’t been reported, denying a kid the chance to compete in the state tournament because of what appears to be a harmless prank is wrong. I know the argument in favor — that a rule is a rule, and any violation in any form is still a violation — but why can’t we interpret individual situations on a case-by-case basis? The NCAA does this kind of thing all the time to student-athletes (see the case of Jeremy Bloom), making black and white declarations based on their rulebook despite a massive gray area that muddles the issue. Did Sumner break a rule against “hazing?” Maybe — I don’t know how “hazing” is interpreted. But where is the harm here? How does the punishment fit the crime? Again, maybe there is more to this story, but if all Sumner did was commit a silly prank that clearly couldn’t have hurt someone, why not slap him on the wrist and suspend him from school for a day? Or make him do some sort of community service project? The one thing that a high school student, particularly an athlete, has precious little of is time. To take time away from him — to take away something important that he can never get back — is too much in this case. Now, if Sumner had been involved in a prank where another student was harmed, then I would completely agree with the punishment. But there absolutely needs to be interpretation on a case-by-case basis here, and I won’t buy into the argument that “a rule is a rule.” All “pranks” are not hazing. All crimes are not the same, which is why in our legal system we don’t assign them all the same punishment. “I’m not going to judge excessiveness, what I’m going to judge is that we expect our kids to behave,” says Stevenson. ” I think that our community has very clear and very high expectations for the children of Jefferson County.” I think you absolutely must judge excessiveness, particularly with children. I think that is our responsibility. I do NOT expect kids to not be kids, and I don’t think we can just wash our hands of our own adult decision-making process and hide behind a rulebook. Did Sumner get the same punishment that another student might get for stuffing someone in a locker? Did he get the same punishment that another student might get for putting Icy Hot in someone’s underwear? These are not all the same pranks, even if they fall under the same definition. We can’t say to kids, “You should have made a good decision, but we don’t even have to try to make a good decision.” I’m not denying that it may be hard to judge “excessiveness,” but just because it is hard doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to try. What are we teaching Sumner in this case? That there is no room for critical thinking? If you have to make a decision on whether something falls under the level of hazing, then there’s no reason you can’t take the next step and make a decision on the “level of excessiveness.” Could another student, on another day, come back and argue that his punishment doesn’t match a previous punishment…all because you “judged the excessiveness?” Maybe, but that’s the way it should be. The world is not a black and white place, and we shouldn’t be teaching kids that it is. Maybe Sumner deserved to be reprimanded. Maybe he was wrong. But slap the kid on the wrist — don’t punch him in the gut. We can’t tell a kid that he has a responsibility to make good decisions in his life, and then absolve ourselves of our responsibility to make the right decision.

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