FRANKFORT — Some Kentucky middle school students have been held back by their parents to get an advantage in sports, but a new regulation could thwart the practice.
Last week, the Kentucky Board of Education approved a new statewide rule recommended by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association that, beginning in the 2015-2016 school year, middle school students who repeat a grade for any reason won't be able to play on a school athletic team in the year they are repeating.
"If you are repeating a grade ... your focus probably should not be on sports," KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett said.
"Your focus should be on remediation of your academic work or whatever was the reason; it shouldn't be simply so you can be a scholarship athlete by the time you are a senior."
"The repeating rule," Tackett said, is designed to make people sit and think, "'Do we really want to do this? Because there is a legitimate consequence to this decision.'
"What it does is make sure that athletics isn't the reason why kids are held back," he said.
High school students already have a similar rule, Tackett said.
Currently, Kentucky middle schools vary on whether they allow a student who is repeating a grade to compete.
The KHSAA has had oversight for middle school athletics since August, but most of the rules for middle schools have been made by local school boards.
Last week, the state board approved the repeating rule and another that Tackett described as among "the very few statewide rules" regarding middle school sports.
A KHSAA middle school advisory committee of principals and athletics directors made the unanimous recommendations, and Tackett took them to the state board of education. The state board approves all KHSAA regulations, which are then reviewed by a General Assembly panel.
At this point, Tackett said, it's difficult to quantify how many students will be affected by the repeating rule.
Don Adkins, the Fayette County Public Schools athletics director for middle schools and high schools, served on the advisory committee that suggested the new statewide rule. Adkins said there had been instances when he thought parents had held back middle school students for athletic reasons.
"Would I say that it happens a lot? ... In certain areas of the state, yes," Adkins said. "Has it happened in Fayette County? Yes. Is it prevalent? No. But it has happened."
In Fayette County, site-based councils, composed of middle school teachers and parents, have the authority to set a minimum GPA required for athletic participation. The new statewide rule brings some consistency to the issue, Adkins said.
The repeating rule ensures that students at similar stages of physical development are playing against one another, and it helps keep athletics in middle schools in the proper prospective, Tackett said.
In the second action last week, the state board adopted an age rule that restricts participation by middle school students who are significantly older than their classmates. For example, a student who is 14 before Aug. 1 of a school year can't play against students in seventh grade or below. A student who is 15 by that date is ineligible to compete against students who are in eighth grade or below but could be eligible to play with older students in higher grades. (In Kentucky, middle school students can play on high school teams.)
The age rule is an attempt to keep middle school students safe, Tackett said.
"The age mismatch is a real problem," because there is a big physical difference between students at each year of middle school, he said.