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A current Harford County Council member and a former council president, who also spent 30-plus years as an educator, are asking the school board to consider rescinding its “zero tolerance” policy on extra-curricular participation and instead encourage more students to participate.

“The most counter-productive thing we do in Harford County Public Schools is have zero tolerance for eligibility to participate in extra-curricular activities,” said Richard Slutzky, who taught for 31 years at Aberdeen High, where he also coached wrestling. “It’s the absolute wrong thing to do.”

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In 2007, Harford County Public Schools amended its ineligibility policy to say students who get one failing grade on a quarterly report card (except for the fourth quarter) or one failing grade in any subject as a final grade are ineligible to participate in extra-curricular activities, such as athletics, clubs and student government.

The policy has not been amended since. It had been scheduled for review by the school board in the spring, but it was delayed, Superintendent Sean Bulson said.

“We didn’t want to modify a policy when a new board was coming in that might look at it differently,” Bulson said. Seven new board members were seated in July.

The school board regularly reviews its policies and on Monday heard a presentation from the school system’s lawyer, Patrick Spicer, and Executive Director of Student Services Buck Hennigan, on its policies on tobacco use, homeless students and student insurance.

Slutzky and Councilman Curtis Beulah presented research to board members Monday that suggests participation in extracurricular activities keeps students focused and helps them improve their SAT scores and overall academic performance.

“We should encourage students to participate in extra-curricular activities, whether it be SGA, athletics, the drama department, music in schools, in other activities,” Slutzky said. “Oftentimes they are the circumstances that put them over in order to achieve in their academic performance.”

In his five years on the county council, Beulah, who represents the Abingdon and Havre de Grace areas, said he has been approached by several parents about the zero tolerance policy.

“I started researching this two years ago and every bit of data, research says that keeping children from participating in extra-curricular activities is not the best policy,” Beulah said.

Juvenile crime peaks after school hours, when between 3 and 6 p.m., 11.3 million children nationwide are left alone and unsupervised, according to "America After 3 PM,” research done by the AfterSchool Alliance on how children spend those three hours.

According to the survey, 83 percent of parents with a child in an after-school program said those programs would reduce the likelihood their kids would commit a crime, use drugs or become a teen parent, Beulah said.

Student behavior and attendance improved, according to their parents, who said the programs provided homework help and opportunities for reading, writing and STEM.

“Personally, I’d like to see some type of program after school to help students that are failing, that are trying to participate in after-school activities, and to help them get those grades up,” Beulah said. “Maybe get other students to tutor, get extra credit for it.”

Every dollar invested in after-school programs saves $3 by reducing crime and welfare costs, improving students’ performance at school and increasing their earning potential, he said, citing the survey.

Slutzky cited a study done by graduate students at Syracuse University, his alma mater, when he was teaching and coaching there in the mid-1960s that said participating in extra-curricular activities “enhances all the other academic aspects in the school system,” he told the board.

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Grade point averages, SAT scores and attendance rates all went up when students participated in extra-curricular activities, he said.

Multiple studies done since then have borne the same results, he said, citing a number of them to the board.

While at Aberdeen High, Slutzky coached seven sports for 58 seasons and a number of students who may not have otherwise graduated went on to not only earn their diplomas but head major companies and lead military teams, he said.

“Aberdeen did not always have the most positive recognition in the county, but many kids out of our program went on to be outstanding people in our community,” he said.

Board of Education member Sonja Karwacki said the primary focus of the school system has to be to provide students the opportunity to success academically, and hopefully that will support their lifetime goals.

“However, as a former educator and school administrator, I will tell you your statistics are accurate,” Karwacki said. “There are so many children in our communities who get up and out of bed in the morning because they know if they’re not in school, they become ineligible for those extra-curricular activities. They do feed the soul of the child.”

She questioned what is being done for students ,who likely know well before the end of the marking period that they are in danger of failing, to help them succeed.

Slutzky said he doesn’t want to eliminate academic standards, but adopt a policy that encourages students to participate in extra-curricular activities.

“We have some at-risk schools in Harford County," he said.

Of the students who are ineligible to participate in extra-curricular activities, “do we want them in after-school activities or do we want them home, unsupervised? Do we want them hanging out with gangs? Where do we want those students?” Slutzky said.

“I challenge the board to amend its policy and find a policy that encourages participation in extra-curricular activity.”

Board member Kathy Carmello pointed out that under the policy, ineligibility can be appealed, and a principal may grant that appeal.

“I think that’s important, when a child is going through something different than normal and an administrator recognizes that,” Carmello said.

Bulson suggested the administration research the ineligibility data and see if it can be determined what impact has been made on student achievement, then present it to the board at a future meeting.

Board President Jansen Robinson asked Slutzky and Beulah whether, if a committee were formed to look at policy changes, they would participate. Both said they would.

“Once we get the date, we’ll have a better idea of where to go,” Robinson said.

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