Middle school athletics would be overseen for the first time by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association under a proposed regulation approved by the state board of education and now under review by lawmakers.
The lack of statewide oversight over middle school athletics in Kentucky has led to problems that include some schools playing more games during a season than is considered safe, and parents having students repeat a grade solely for athletic reasons, according to KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett.
However, Tackett said in an interview that the agency would deal with middle schools using a different model than it uses for high schools. Instead of governing middle schools, the KHSAA would provide staff and coordination for a 21-member regionally balanced committee composed mostly of educators who have expertise in middle school athletics.
The regulation, approved by the state board of education in April, sets some fundamental guidelines, but many specific rules would be decided by the middle school committee and local school districts.
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The regulation was filed with the Legislative Research Commission on Friday. After a monthlong public comment period and a public hearing, which probably will be in July, the General Assembly's Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee and the Interim Joint Committee on Education will give the regulation a final review, said Nancy Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.
Although the regulation could take effect later this year, changes would not begin until the 2014-15 school year, with some provisions phased in, Tackett said. The committee overseeing middle schools won't be named until the legislative review is complete.
Explaining the different tack that will be taken with middle schools, Tackett said, "We're governing high school sports, we are overseeing this middle school project ... I hope this leads to the development of a strong middle school program."
Because middle school athletes have needs that are different from high school athletes, the yet-to-be-named committee members "can't just Xerox the high school rules," Tackett said.
High school sports in the state are governed by the bylaws of the KHSAA, but there is no similar organization for middle school athletics, for which local school boards make their own rules. Also, private citizens have established nonprofit organizations to establish playoffs and championships in some areas of the state for middle school sports such as football and wrestling.
The issue of how to regulate and oversee middle school athletics has been discussed for several years in Kentucky. In 1993, a task force recommended that the KHSAA expand its scope to include middle school athletics, but that was never done because of finances and lack of manpower. Tackett said the KHSAA can now handle the oversight of health and safety rules.
Late last year, a panel called the Task Force on Middle School Athletics, commissioned by the legislature, made recommendations concerning the health and safety of the students, and many are included in the regulation.
Under the proposal, paid and unpaid coaches would have to be 21 and submit to criminal background checks. All middle school students would have to adhere to the same sports medicine policies as high school athletes.
The new committee formed to oversee middle school sports would have to provide an opportunity for nonprofit athletic groups, parents and others to provide input on sports, athletic events and other school district issues regarding middle school sports.
It would have to meet at least twice a year to review policies and make recommendations.
The committee would have to report regularly to the KHSAA and work in conjunction with Tackett on a formal written annual report to the Kentucky Board of Education.
Under the regulation, an organization conducting a school-based event at the middle school level would have to submit financial reports, which would be published on the KHSAA website.
One provision in the regulation addresses parents who ask that students be retained instead of being promoted to the next grade for athletic reasons.
"There's no denying that it happens. Everybody thinks their kid is the next scholarship player at Kentucky," Tackett said.
Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, students would not be able to compete in middle school during a year in which they are repeating a grade for any reason, under the regulation. Students could compete in later middle school years, Tackett said.
A similar rule has been in place for high school students for years, Tackett said.
The regulation also calls for local school districts to set limits on student participation and constraints on pre-season practices and how many games are played in a season. Middle school students wouldn't be able to play more games than high school students are allowed to play.
Tackett said the legislature's middle school task force heard testimony that two middle school basketball teams had played 50 games, when high schools may play only 30 during the regular season.
Playing at high school level
Under Kentucky law, seventh- and eighth-grade students may play at the high school level in most sports except soccer, wrestling and football. That wouldn't change under the new regulation.
Currently, there is no statewide rule prohibiting students in the sixth grade and below from participating at the high school level. fewer than 400 of the more than 65,000 students who play on Kentucky high school teams are in sixth grade or below, Tackett said. Most compete in sports such as golf, tennis and cross country.
Under the new regulation, only students in seventh grade and above would be able to play on high school teams as of the 2014-15 school year. Students in sixth grade and below who are playing for a high school at that time would be allowed to continue.
Tackett said the legislative task force heard testimony last year that indicated the mingling of students below sixth grade and high school students in an athletic environment was not in the younger students' best interests.
Don Adkins, Fayette County Public Schools' athletic director for middle and high schools, said he expected few changes as a result of the regulation because Fayette County middle schools already are required to follow KHSAA health and safety rules. Fayette County has had a rule for a few years that middle school students who are being held back can't play athletics during the year that they repeat, he said.