Students, not rules, should come first

Last week, Dr. Allan Gee, the Homer High School principal, disallowed my daughter, Barae, from participating in the Alaska State Nordic Ski Championships because she missed more than 10 minutes of her first period class before her team traveled to Anchorage the day before the event. As a freshman parent I had not heard of this “10 minute rule” before. And neither had my daughter.
Barae is no slacker. Training hard, Barae excelled this ski season representing both her school and borough positively throughout the region, often going to 6:30 a.m. workouts on her own and after school ski practices. Barae is a straight A student. The morning she was late, she awoke with some slight congestion. I thought an extra hour of sleep would do her well before 4 days of challenging athleticism. I planned to excuse her like I have other days. The day before she had taken a test in the same first period class in which she would be late, so we all assumed she would not be missing much.
After being told that Barae could not participate because she disobeyed the “10 minute rule,” I explained to the principal that I was unaware of this rule. I was told I should have known it and that every other parent and student knew it. Later I asked the mother of another freshman varsity skier if she knew about the rule and she told me she had never heard about it either.
I understand the rationale that if a student gets more rest than other athletes there could be an unfair advantage. But this was not even the day of the race. And if another reason is that students should be in school if they are not participating in co-curricular activities, then how to explain Dr. Gee’s rejection of my offer to drive Barae to Anchorage after the school day in which Barae attended four out of five classes while her teammates, who left early on the bus, attended one? Regardless, if I had known about the rule in the first place, my daughter and I would have certainly obeyed it. This was a case of communication break down.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District — “Where kids come first” — and the Alaska School Activities Association have developed thoughtful policies to address situations such as this one that empower the school principal to consider circumstances and make a decision that is in the best interest of the student and school. Repetitively, Dr. Gee stated that his job was to enforce the rules and to follow them. I shuddered each time he uttered those words.
Even when it was clearly explained that we were unaware of the rules, and that I had spoken to John O’Brien, director of Secondary Education and Student Activities, who encouraged me to “re-plead my case with Dr. Gee,” all Dr. Gee could say was that his job was to enforce and follow the rules. He would not change his mind nor consider the specific circumstances. To support his decision he repeatedly told me “even basketball players had to abide by these rules.”
The school district and ASAA clearly provided for informed decision-making by local leaders, who supposedly best know their students and the local context and set the cultural norms for leadership. In this case, however, it seems we have a failed leader.
Leave the final discretion to the local leader — the school principal. This is the person who supposedly knows the students and their circumstances in his or her domain. He or she also defines and sets the cultural norms for what it means be a leader. To me, empowering local leadership reflects an adept understanding that we design policies to best structure broad-based, faceless institutions while offering organizations within to behave on a human scale. I do not mean that rules are meant to be broken, but rather, they should to be enforced or modified with compassion. Each case must be judged weighing the underlying rationale for the rule and the lessons/outcomes resulting from the decision.
Is the take-away lesson to obey the rules no matter what? Our civil society, our schools and their leaders need to teach a lot more than just learning to uncritically obey rules. We need to foster nuanced thinking considering the effects of all our actions.
Admittedly, Dr. Gee is in a challenging position with many difficult decisions to make. That is why we, the public, hire intelligent human beings and award them with sizable salaries to be our school leaders. If there were no exceptions to the rules, we might as well replace people with robots.
Although devastated on the day and weekend of the decision, and convinced by that decision that she is not special, my daughter is resilient and will continue to strive to be her best on, in, and off the snow. I know she will persevere despite being held back.
I do hope that our schools and leaders acknowledge the power they hold in our communities and truly put the kids, not the rules, first.
Hope Finkelstein is a Homer citizen engaged with community health and education.