By Ricky Watson
After taking a trip to Walmart, noticing a fashionable piece of clothing and making the bonehead decision to pull the security tag off and walk out of the store, a 15-year-old high school student will get charged with a Class H felony of larceny from a merchant by removing, destroying, or deactivating a component of an antishoplifting device. If the kid is lucky, his case will be assigned to a reasonable Assistant District Attorney in juvenile court who will offer him either a misdemeanor plea deal or a deferred dismissal (perform community service or take a class to get the case dismissed) that won’t result in a felony adjudication on his record. If he isn’t so lucky, he will have to fight the charge in court and risk suffering the consequences of a felony adjudication on his juvenile record. Even worse, if the kid is really down and out on his luck, happens to be 16-years-old or older at the time the act was committed, and lives in the state of North Carolina (the only state in the country that automatically treats 16- and 17-year-old children like adults in the criminal justice system without any chance to return to juvenile court), he will face adult criminal charges that could result in a felony conviction being etched on his adult record for the rest of his life.
Although there are numerous collateral consequences a young person faces after being adjudicated or convicted of a felony, one often unmentioned consequence is the inability to play high school sports. In North Carolina, once a high school student has been adjudicated delinquent (in juvenile court) or convicted (in adult court) of a felony, they are banned from ever playing high school sports, even if they successfully served their punishment and did everything a judge ordered them to do under the terms of their probation. This is problematic because children at-risk of recidivism need every opportunity they can get to stay out of trouble. One of the most proven methods to keep young people successful is involvement in school activities, including participation in sports.
All too common are the Class F-I, non-violent, felony charges that young people get accused of such as shoplifting while interfering with an anti-theft device. (See charts)[i] [ii] This means nearly a quarter of young people in juvenile court, and almost a fifth of young offenders in adult court, already held responsible for their actions, will never have a chance to see playing time on a high school sports team.
Considering the many proven benefits of participation in high school athletics, the most at-risk youth should at least have some pathway back to the playing field. NCHSAA’s mandatory and blanket exclusion begs the question: If a child has done enough to satisfy a judge, why isn’t this enough for the NCHSAA?
The policy prohibits any student from participating in high school athletics if the student is convicted of a felony in adult court or adjudicated delinquent of a felony in juvenile court.[iii] While the policy is silent on any exceptions, upon further research, the conviction or adjudication of an eighth grade student does not preclude that student from being eligible to play high school athletics at an NCHSAA member school.[iv] Aside from this caveat, there is no mention of a procedural process that allows a rehabilitated youthful offender with a felony conviction or adjudication to appeal or petition the NCHSAA to demonstrate that they have abided by court orders and satisfied terms of their disposition. The NCHSAA’s General Counsel has confirmed that there is currently no appeals process in place.
Why does it matter?: Benefits from Participation in Sports
Participation in sports provides physical, emotional, psychological, and social benefits for children. While it is understood that participating in high school athletics is a privilege, it is also an incentive, a motivator, and a benefit that exposes young people not only to role models but also to positive experiences that yield long-lasting effects.
Children involved in athletics demonstrate improved academic achievement, higher self-esteem, fewer behavioral problems, and healthier psychological adjustment.[v] Studies suggest physical activity plays a role in academic performance through a variety of direct and indirect physiological, cognitive, emotional, and learning mechanisms.[vi][vii][viii][ix] General physical movement affects the brain’s physiology and is linked to improved information storage, processing, and retrieval, as well as improved attention, coping, positive affect, and a reduction in cravings and pain.[x][xi] Research suggests that athletes are even more likely to finish high school, be more successful in the workforce, and even earn more money and have higher-status positions than non-athletes.[xii][xiii] Considering we now know that young people’s brains don’t fully develop until well into their mid-20s, and that up until this age their brains are more vulnerable and malleable, the community should take this time to find as many positive influences as we have to encourage positive behavior.[xiv]
When considering that youth of color from low-income families, who are already disproportionately and overly diagnosed with disabilities and viewed as having behavioral issues, are more at risk of becoming entrenched in the justice system, one can immediately recognize the negative and discriminatory impact the NCHSAA Felony ban has on these children.
Abolishing the NCHSAA Felony Policy would serve as encouragement to many youth as they hurdle the obstacles of the juvenile justice system and attempt to successfully satisfy all of the expectations of a District Court Judge. The punishment for a youth who is adjudicated delinquent of a felony in juvenile court can range from, among other things, supervision in the youth’s home from the department of social services, to probation, to detention (juvenile jail), placement out of the home, or commitment to a youth development center (juvenile prison) for a period of no less than six months but up to his twenty-first birthday. All of these punishments are intended to be rehabilitative and focused on reducing the risk of recidivism. Youthful offenders unfortunate enough to be tried as adults in Superior Court merely because they live in North Carolina face all of the perils of the adult justice system. If a young person endures court punishments and is deemed rehabilitated in the eyes of the court, have they not paid their dues to society and earned back the right to be a child again?
Prevention of future negative behavior is another factor that should be considered in allowing youth the opportunity to get back on the field. Young people who are involved in high school athletics are busy. Aside from the hours that go into training, practice and games, they typically have required study hall times where they are expected to complete homework assignments and prepare for school. Built in, structured time where a young person is in school rather than in the streets is positive for the entire community. This is particularly true for youth who have already been in trouble and need continued positive stimuli to stay away from negative distractions. Participation in high school sports will keep formerly court-involved youth active, healthy and motivated to remain eligible and ultimately provide them with another reason to stay out of trouble. Also, a key element to sports participation is the mentoring aspect that develops with good coaching, which should help in reducing rates of recidivism for young offenders. Overall, playing high school sports allows young people to develop positive relationships, self-esteem, time-management skills, responsibility, and other valuable life-skills.
Inherent bias in the criminal justice system makes the NCHSAA’s policy more likely to have a disparate impact on youth of color, specifically Black males. Black boys, who fare the worst in the system, are more likely to come into contact with police, to be charged with more serious offenses, to be convicted or adjudicated delinquent, and to face harsher sentencing than their white peers.
When considering who this ban impacts, it is apparent that those harmed the most are exactly the types of disadvantaged kids that need every opportunity they can get to be successful in life. If being able to play a high school sport gives them any advantage, however tiny it may be, these youth should be given an opportunity to prove that they have taken steps in the right direction to earn the chance to participate in sports. Abolishing the policy would allow these youth the opportunity to be kids again. However, if we continue punishing children who have already atoned for their delinquent acts, ultimately telling them that they are always too bad to be treated as children, what kind of hope or encouragement are we offering them to change?
This critical population of young people needs every opportunity to be successful. Considering those involved in the juvenile justice system are more likely to be involved in the adult criminal justice system, the community should do everything in its power to make alternatives to crime readily available to youth who have proven they are on the path to rehabilitation. Even the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) has no blanket policy banning individuals with felony convictions from participating in collegiate athletics, instead leaving that decision up to schools.
To ensure that the NCHSAA Felony Policy is not a hindrance to the rehabilitative efforts of youth in our state, both the children under the age of 16 and those over the age of 16 unfortunate enough to live in the only state in the country that automatically treats them as adults in criminal courts, the NCHSAA should do away with the policy. In a state that already punishes its youth more harshly than any other state in the country, the NCHSAA has an opportunity to end a policy that harms young people.
Ricky Watson is Co-Director of the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.