MIAA policies prevent taunting — So what happened in Attleboro?

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on April 24, 2017.

ATTLEBORO — The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association dedicates an entire pamphlet to taunting prevention and policy.

So, when an Attleboro High School senior was subjected to taunts 14 times in a single basketball game, why didn’t school or MIAA officials step in?

Attleboro Principal Bill Runey said the situation simply fell through the cracks.

The MIAA defines taunting as “any actions or comments by coaches, players or spectators which are intended to bait, anger, embarrass, ridicule or demean others. The “trash talk” is considered a “flagrant unsportsmanlike foul” by the MIAA — one so looked down upon that officials are encouraged to eject players, coaches, game officials or spectators who participate in the act from a game after a single warning.

But that wasn’t the case in Attleboro at a Feb. 20 girls’ basketball game between Attleboro and North Attleboro, when the North Attleboro student section heckled Attleboro player Julia Strachan with chants of “traitor” every time she touched the ball — a total of 14 times in the second half, DoubleACS footage from the game shows.

Strachan, 18, lives in North Attleboro but transferred to Attleboro High at the beginning of her junior year after her father, Michael Strachan, took a football coaching job at AHS.

Jason Feid, a North Attleboro coach and physical education teacher, has been accused of orchestrating the chants — and an investigation is under way — but in a statement to The Sun Chronicle earlier this month Feid pointed the finger at Attleboro administrators, who seemingly did little to stop the chants.

“At no time were the students/crowd informed, cautioned, stopped or otherwise warned by any of the numerous Attleboro faculty members present at the game to refrain from the chant or chants being voiced,” he said in a letter.

MIAA Associate Director Richard Pearson said every athletic event is monitored by an MIAA official, who is often the athletic director or principal of a participating high school. But, while school officials are versed in suggested policy, Pearson said the association is a self-governing body that leaves regulation and enforcement up to participating districts.

“We have trust in our member schools that they will monitor the athletic and educational settings of their districts,” he said. “We allow the schools to lead and help clarify what’s happened at particular events. Schools, as self-governing entities, can bring that to our attention. But there is no regulatory arm of this office.”

In Attleboro, Runey said Athletic Director Mark Houle is typically the MIAA official for the district, but because Houle doubles as the varsity boy’s basketball coach, that responsibility is sometimes shuffled around to other assistant principals or deans. And when an event is particularly large, the issue of crowd control becomes even more complicated. 

“This particular event was a sell out, so to ask for one person to be responsible for every single one of those spectators without somebody bringing an event to his or her attention is not a reasonable expectation,” Runey said. 

He said there is also an implied “gentleman’s agreement” between schools where each district will mind to their own students and fans to prevent officials from one school from chastising students from another.

But Runey also accepted fault for the Feb. 20 incident.

“We’re not without blame in this situation,” Runey said. “I had people there that night that I’m confident heard the chant. We have some accountability in this as well. Anybody that was within earshot should have brought it to someone’s attention.”

Runey called the situation a learning curve for the Attleboro administration and said he’s currently working on new protocols that require any employee of the district — from custodians, teachers, coaches and administrators — to report unacceptable behavior to their higher up at first notice, whether they’re on or off the clock.

The MIAA provides guidelines for appropriate spectator behavior and advises the role of administrators, coaches and athletic directors in keeping a supportive environment.

“The greatest peril to interscholastic athletes is overzealous fans,” a policy in the 2015 sportsmanship manual reads. “Spectators think little of harassing players, coaches and officials in their classroom and the field of play. The spectator should be informed that administrators can no longer tolerate immature behavior, whether from a recent graduate, parent or community resident.

“For the school sports program to be an educational experience, spectators must understand the need for good sportsmanship. Many sports fans have lost perspective and linked collegiate and professional sports with high school programs. Problems that should not be associated with the educational program have dampened what should be a positive experience for students.”

Included in unacceptable behavior is: yelling or chanting at opponents, making derogatory chants or gestures, criticizing officials or a call, using profanity or anger that draws attention away from the contest, blaming a loss on game officials, coaches or players — and, in Strachan’s case — laughing or name calling to distract an opponent.

The policy tasks the administration with the leading role in establishing an environment of good sportsmanship. Administrators, it says, can’t avoid all problems — but how they respond to problems speaks to the “philosophy of the school administration.”

And, it also sets the tone for students, the MIAA said.

The conduct of coaches and spectators falls under the responsibility of the athletic director.

But coaches, with a role likened to that of a “substitute parent,” must also set a good example to players and spectators alike, the MIAA said.

Especially at the high school level.

“Unlike most areas of education, athletics are played before spectators, and young people, who look to their coaches, teammates, parents, fellow students and citizens of the community for positive reinforcement that they have made the right choice in wanting to compete for their school,” the sportsmanship manual reads.

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