Elm City’s Parker Barnes, right, and her teammates take off at the start of the Wilson County Middle School Cross-Country Championships on Friday at Gillette Athletic Complex. Barnes reigned as girls county champion for the second straight year as the Lady Vikings repeated as county champs.
Bonnie Snedeker | Special to the Times
By Drew C. Wilson
Times Staff Writer
Sixth-grade students may be added to the middle school-level athletic rosters in the upcoming school year after a Monday ruling by the Wilson County Board of Education.
In a 6-1 vote, the board elected to permit sixth-graders to join all sports except for football.
Christine Fitch, board chairwoman, declined to support the measure with her vote.
Velma Barnes, of the accountability and technology committee, recommended that the board make the change in eligibility for sixth-graders.
The N.C. State Board of Education passed a policy last July that deemed sixth-grade students eligible to play all sports in middle school except for football.
“Wilson County Schools did not elect last year to allow sixth-graders to play sports for the 2016-17 school year primarily because the policy came late in July, so there was not enough time for the board to make a clear decision,” Barnes said.
Barnes said a survey of members of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association favored the inclusion of sixth-graders in sports.
“It is the desire of our middle school principals in a 6-0 vote to allow sixth-graders to play sports for the 2017-18 school year,” Barnes told the board.
Wilson County’s middle school students play in a tri-county sports league that includes Nash, Johnson and Edgecombe counties. The other counties allow their sixth-graders to play.
“If our students are allowed to play, it would make our conference play more balanced,” Barnes said. “It would also keep some schools from struggling to have enough students to play in baseball, soccer, cheerleading and softball as well.”
Barnes said the committee expressed concern that students would be leaving the public schools to participate in athletics in other schools.
“One concern we heard would be allowing sixth-graders a year of academic transition to middle school prior to being involved in athletics,” Barnes said. “Also, there were instances of concern where sixth-graders making the team may necessitate a seventh- or eighth-grader not being chosen.”
Jimmy Tillman, athletic director for Wilson County Schools, reported that research shows all students who participate in athletics typically have better grades, attendance and discipline.
“I just have one concern,” said board member Robin Flinn. “I love athletics as much as anybody. I want everybody to play if they can. My only concern would be that sometimes sixth-grade students are so small and just starting to grow. Some sports that are non-contact are fine, but you look at a sport like soccer, and that would be my concern.”
Flinn said there may now be an instance where a smaller sixth-grader comes up against a more mature seventh- or eighth-grader.
“Sometimes, a little bitty one can take them on,” Flinn said. “I have seen it before. Other than that, the more kids that play sports, the better.”
Board member Gary Farmer said the committee discussed the fact that there would be only a handful of kids who would have the maturity and skill level to be put on the team with the seventh- and eighth-graders.
“The key was that football was off the table,” Farmer said.
Farmer said the new arrangement will allow Wilson County middle schools to have enough students to form teams.
“You’ve got a situation where some schools, like Darden and some of the other schools, wouldn’t have a team because they just wouldn’t have enough,” Farmer said.
Flinn said her children enjoyed being able to play tennis in sixth grade because it wasn’t technically a school sport.
Flinn’s only concern was the size of the kids.
“Other than that, I’m all for it,” Flinn said.
“Part of that discussion also happened to center around the fact that at our high schools we have certified athletic trainers. At our middle schools there are not certified athletic trainers,” Fitch said. “The whole question of concussive injuries was brought to the table as well. It brought out that all of the coaches have first responder training, but I still have an issue with them not being concussively trained.
“Although the coach is there at every practice, the nurses are not there at every practice, so I think it opens us up to some liability issues because we would not have certified athletic trainers as we do at the high school level,” she said.
Farmer said the lack of funding to pay for athletic trainers is a statewide issue.
“There are no trainers on the middle school level across the state, so that’s not an issue that is just a Wilson County issue,” Farmer said.
“But it is a safety issue,” Fitch added.
“It is a safety issue, but we call 911 and they come when we have had those situations in middle school in football,” Farmer said.
“I agree that we need to be careful and as protective of students,” said board member Henry Mercer. “I can’t imagine one of our coaches putting a child on the field that is not of the talent or the size to be able to protect themselves as well as the next person. When someone is hurt, it’s never intended, but they hurt just the same and we need to account for that.”
Mercer said he doesn’t foresee a large number of sixth-graders meeting the standard to make the team.
“There are some, so I think it would be beneficial to have that option,” Mercer said.
Farmer said an indicator of the idea’s soundness is the solid support from school administrators.
“The mere fact that all of our middle school principals, all six of them, think it is a good thing, I have to concur with them,” Farmer said.
“I agree that safety is an issue,” said board member Debora Powell. “I agree with that because we want the safety of all of our students. At the same time, I feel that we do have competent people, coaches and staff in place that will call 911. We have a very good staff.”
In other business, the board:
• approved a contract with Allred Mechanical Services for $224,000 to replace a chiller at Fike High School.
• approved a contract with Owens Construction for $338,455 to reroof Barnes, Gardners and Lee Woodard elementary schools.
• approved a contract with Freedom Industries for $2,262,000 for replacement of air conditioning units at Beddingfield and Fike high schools and Forest Hills and Toisnot middle schools.
• approved a contract with Nations Roof for $2,140,000 to re-roof Fike High School.
• approved a contract with North Carolina Sound for $79,795 to install 41 new surveillance cameras at Beddingfield High School, $112,061.33 to install 55 new cameras at Fike High School and $79,795 to install 41 cameras at Hunt High School.