School Board to Take a Second Look at Dodgeball

by Barbara O’Brien

After nearly a month of controversy surrounding the decision to remove so-called “human target” games, including dodgeball, from the Windham School District’s curriculum, school board members have decided to take a second look at the issue.

On March 19, by a vote of 4 to 1, the Windham School Board took the recommendation of administrators to do away with these games as part of the physical education program.  The decision was reportedly made after a parental complaint of student bullying.  The only school board member who voted against the motion was Dennis Senibaldi, who had been elected to the board only a week earlier.

Several weeks later, the decision was brought up for discussion as the result of several petitions being circulated around Windham Middle School, as well as at Windham High School.  An online petition was also available for any adults interested in expressing their support of returning dodgeball to the curriculum.  According to Interim Superintendent Henry LaBranche, approximately 800 signatures were collected, with 101 of those coming from out-of-town, out-of-state and even internationally.  The story was also covered by national networks and featured in a monologue performed by late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel.

On April 16, a group of seventh grade students from Windham Middle School served as ambassadors for those who want to see dodgeball and the other games returned to the curriculum.  Students told school board members that they didn’t feel the majority of students, who play these games fairly, should be punished for the negative actions of a few.  Students also pointed out that the balls used are constructed of soft foam.  Bullying isn’t an issue in the games, they said, and should it occur there are already policies in place to deal with the problem.  “Nobody’s being targeted because of who they are,” one seventh grader said.  “That’s just the point of the game.”

Several middle school parents also spoke at the podium, some pointing out that there are so many more important issues for school board members to be spending their time and effort solving, than worrying about taking dodgeball away from students.  Several also spoke of the enjoyment they had had playing dodgeball, when they were younger.  School board members should be concentrating on the lack of space in Windham schools or getting a teacher contract voters can support, instead, they said.  One parent said he felt the school board was doing the children a disservice by not supporting competitive games.  “It makes it tougher for them to live in the real world,” he said.  “Our children need to learn to deal with such situations,” another parent said.  “They need to learn life’s lessons.”  “The rules need to be enforced, but don’t take away a game the kids love,” one father said.

Another parent told school board members that banning dodgeball was heading down “a slippery slope.”  What’s next, basketball or softball?  others asked.  School board member Stephanie Wimmer denied that the school board had “banned” the games.  “I don’t feel we banned anything,” she said, claiming that it was only removed from the curriculum and could still be played during recess.  Referring to the plea to restore the games to the curriculum, Wimmer said, “I don’t want to do what’s popular, but what’s right.”  Wimmer said she wants students to learn activities that would encourage them to remain active throughout life and dodgeball wouldn’t accomplish that goal.  School board member Jerome Rekart agreed with Wimmer, saying, “The Windham School Board has not banned dodgeball.  School board member Michelle Farrell said she agreed with Wimmer and Rekart.  “Even if only one child has a concern, it will be addressed,” Farrell said, adding that she is disappointed that the fate of dodgeball has become such a hot topic in the Town of Windham.

Several people attending the meeting suggested that students be given options for activities, so that those who didn’t want to play dodgeball or one of the other Nerf ball games could opt out.

Student representative Christine Carpenter, who is a senior at Windham High School, said she has fond memories of playing dodgeball growing up and suggested that an afterschool “club” be formed for students interested in playing the game.  “Dodgeball doesn’t align with the curriculum standards,” she said, offering an explanation for the school board’s decision.

“No one even heard of Windham High School until we banned dodgeball,” Carpenter said of the national publicity.  “That’s outrageous,” considering all the positive achievements and commendations the high school has received in its brief four-year history, she said.  Looking around the meeting room, Carpenter said, “There are more people here tonight than when the teacher contract failed,” she said.

Senibaldi said he questioned Superintendent LaBranche about whether or not teachers would still be allowed to teach dodgeball in Windham Schools.  LaBranche’s reply was “No,” they could not.  Senibaldi also asked how many injuries had been reported as the result of playing dodgeball.  The answer was that no injuries had been reported.  “All I ask is that the issue be reconsidered,” Senibaldi said, adding that he felt the school board’s decision “had been made in a vacuum.”  “There are ways to change things without getting rid of the game,” he added.

Dr. LaBranche replied that he was educated as a physical education teacher as an undergraduate student and has never felt that dodgeball was “a legitimate activity” in relation to a school curriculum.  “Physical education is not about competition,” LaBranche said.  “It’s about building the mind, the body and the spirit.”  LaBranche said he feels he made the right decision in recommending that dodgeball be removed from the curriculum.  Although he noted that he is willing to listen to all points of view, LaBranche also said he believes that the curriculum must be strictly upheld.

School Board Chairman Michael Joanis said he was willing to ask that the physical education curriculum be looked at again, suggesting that a committee be formed to accomplish the task.  “We need to take a second look,” Joanis said.

Subsequently, the full school board agreed to establish a committee to review the entire physical education curriculum and make recommendations, including those aspects pertaining to “human target games.”  School board members also expressed appreciation to the students who put in the effort of collecting signatures and expressing their points of view on the issue.

Windham Middle School Principal Dan Moulas said he had heard from those who favor and those who oppose having dodgeball included in the physical education program.  “We need a curriculum that meets the needs of all students,” he said.