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Jaywalking: Virtual verdict

What happened to the Mohawk field hockey team is unfortunate.

Due to an ineligible player, the Warriors were forced to forfeit all but two of their games from this past fall.

Here’s what happened for those who missed it. Former full-time Mohawk student Holly Brown decided to take advantage of the Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School this year to help her manage a busy schedule focused on a musical career that’s taking off. Someone in the Mohawk administration mistakenly believed Brown was considered a home-schooled student even though there was never any paperwork to support it. Brown was considered a full-time student of the Virtual School, which became a public school this past July. She was not, as administration believed, home-schooled within the Mohawk district and taking classes through the virtual school. She was a full-time student Virtual School student. Graduation would give her a Virtual School diploma. The Mohawk School District is paying school-choice money to the Virtual School.

I don’t think anyone who read the story in Monday’s paper thought for a minute that Holly Brown did anything wrong while participating on the team. In an age when fewer and fewer kids are participating in sports, I commend Brown for remaining involved despite what appears to be a hectic schedule as she begins what will hopefully be a successful musical career. I spoke with Carl Tillona, the Virtual School’s executive director, who had nothing but good things to say about Brown, including that everyone associated with the school is “very proud of all of Holly’s accomplishments.”

I spoke with half-a-dozen people the past few days about the issue and confusion about several things seems to reign. One of the first points I wanted to clear up was that Brown was not eligible to play on any MIAA-sanctioned team. Some people thought she was supposed to play for Greenfield High School. Not so. The Virtual School stands alone with its own identity. It became a public school in July 2013. Any student currently enrolled as a full-time student there can not play sports for any MIAA high school. As explained in Monday’s story, the Virtual School falls under the same category as Four Rivers Charter School in Greenfield. I had heard from some Four Rivers parents who wanted their children eligible to compete on the GHS hockey team, and they were unsure why it wasn’t permitted. If Four Rivers was an MIAA affiliate, it could then form a cooperative with Greenfield to allow its students to play hockey for GHS, much the same way that Mahar and Smith Academy currently do, but it is not an MIAA school, and thus is not eligible.

Something else I wanted to clarify was what could have been done to allow Brown to play. The Mohawk administration said that they were under the impression that if Brown had submitted paperwork to be a home-schooled student, then signed up to take classes through the Virtual School, Brown would have been eligible. Others felt that the Virtual School would not have accepted Brown under those conditions, because the Virtual School is an independent entity.

There is still gray area. Currently, the Virtual School is working with the state to enact regulations permitting home-schooled students to take classes at the Virtual School for a fee. While there is nothing in place yet to offer classes to students that are not full-time Virtual School enrollees, it does appear that exceptions could be made. Currently, because the Virtual School used to be a part of the Greenfield Public School system, Greenfield Public School students attend for free. Typically, the students take advantage of classes not offered by Greenfield Public Schools, for example, let’s say Advanced-Placement Russian. Other school districts do not enjoy the same relationship. It does appear that proposals in the works would change that in the future. Then a home-schooled student could pay a fee to take classes at the Virtual School. But that’s still in the planning stages.

As for where the blame lies in all of this, it’s not the player or the coach’s fault. It’s the administration’s duty to make sure its athletes are eligible. In order to be eligible, players must be enrolled in the school district, have up-to-date physicals, and meet grade requirements. According to several school sources, those responsibilities fall on the principal and athletic director. But we’re not here to cast harpoons. Everyone makes mistakes. This was simply an unfortunate one, a misunderstanding, and there is little anyone can do now except use the unfortunate incident as a learning tool going forward.

Let’s be honest. Mohawk field hockey used a player that lived in the school district but was enrolled at the Virtual School. It should not take away from what Mohawk did this season, namely going 7-7-4 in the regular season, beating Turners Falls High School in the WMass Division II quarterfinals, and then taking Frontier Regional School to overtime in the semifinals before falling 2-1. I put in a call to Turners Falls coach Megan Gilbert, who said she had no sour grapes and she felt bad for Brown and the Warriors.

“I think that regardless of what is going on, that one single player did not solely get them to where they were,” she said. “It’s unfortunate for Holly and for the team, but it shouldn’t take away from what they accomplished.”

What then is the future of Virtual School students and athletics? Because the Virtual School is still so new, issues like this still must be ironed out. Tillona, himself a former high school athlete, said that athletics are an important part of high school and that as more virutal schools are spawned, the MIAA will have to review policy.

“The MIAA will have to make some thoughtful decisions regarding virtual-school students athletes,” he concluded.

The last thing any watchdog of state high school athletics wants to do is take sports away from students.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com.

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