WINDHAM - The Windham School Board struck dodgeball from their curriculum last week, and now the question of whether or not to continue the traditional gym class activity remains a loaded topic in the district and beyond.
During the March 19 Windham School Board meeting, the board voted 4-1 to remove dodgeball and other so-called "human target" games from the district's physical education curriculum.
Earlier this year, when school officials revisited the district's concussion-prevention policy, a committee was formed to take a closer look at school-sponsored games that could pose risk for injury, Superintendent Dr. Henry LaBranche said.
"In my opinion, the human-target games seem contrary to our goal of avoiding concussions," he said.
The superintendent, who admitted Windham is probably the only district to ban such activities, noted that the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) said that "human target" games result in negative experiences for many students, pose safety concerns and in some cases, encourages instances of bullying.
The sole board member to object to the motion, Dennis Senibaldi, said he "definitely couldn't support banning these games."
"This is dodgeball; this is American pie," Senibaldi said. "You cannot deny that there are more injuries in football."
"If someone is being bullied, there are ways to address that. We have anti-bullying policies," he continued.
Others noted, however, that football players wear protective gear, while students in a regular gym class typically do not.
Windham teacher Rory O'Connor, spokesman for the district committee tasked with reviewing district physical education policies, said NASPE takes "a firm stance against human target games."
Ten such games have been used in the Windham district, including "Rescue 911," a game played with first- and second-graders at Golden Brook School. That game divides students into two teams. Players are hit with Nerf balls from opposing teams, and those who are struck by a ball must "freeze" until the player designated as the "doctor" can unfreeze them.
O'Connor recommended eliminating "all target games" from the district while urging educators to research less-combative alternatives.
Despite the fact that today's dodgeball games use Nerf balls rather than hard volleyballs, the risk of concussions remains, LaBranche said.
"I think it's prudent we have games designed to ensure safety at all levels. To do otherwise would be irresponsible on our part," he said. "Will I be popular for this decision? Probably not."
One game's title, "Slaughter," was particularly concerning, LaBranche said, noting that several parents had contacted him with concerns about the games.
"We've created a situation here where there are some wanting to play these games and others are wanting an alternative," said LaBranche. "Those students have been singled out by their peers because they're unwilling to play a game. That singling out doesn't end with gym class."
School board member Stephanie Wimmer said that as a parent, she trusted the superintendent's advice.
"I absolutely support this and we need to make some changes. We need to take the violence out of our schools," Wimmer said.
Marcia McCaffrey, an education consultant with the state Department of Education, said she's unaware of any other schools in New Hampshire banning dodgeball.
"However, I do know that physical education teachers, in general, are very concerned about the implications of the game," McCaffrey said. "The safety concerns have been there all along. Back in the day, if you shot someone in the head during dodgeball, you were pulled out of the game."
McCaffrey said she thought the issue was a hot topic simply because "it brings people back to their own school experiences."
"Of course, there are always the chances that the players might exhibit bullying behavior and that needs to be addressed," she added. "But ultimately it's up to each school board to determine which policies are appropriate in their district."
Windham Recreation Director Cheryl Haas said the dodgeball ban hasn't affected any of the town's children's programs yet, though she declined to comment further when asked if any plans were in the works to change that in the future.
YMCA of Greater Londonderry Director Lisa Fitzgerald likewise declined to comment on whether or not games of dodgeball posed problems for children attending afterschool and summer programs.
Derry School Superintendent Laura Nelson said she's had yet to hear a complaint from teachers, parents or students regarding the popular gym class activity.
"To my knowledge, we haven't had any issues here regarding dodgeball," Nelson said. "But we do take bullying very seriously here in Derry, so if there ever was an issue here where a child was being targeted in gym class, we'd certainly work quickly to address it."
Derry mother Suzanne Jean said she disagreed with banning dodgeball in the nearby town.
"Give me a break," she said. "It's dodgeball and we all grew up playing it. It's a fantastic way for kids to burn off some energy ... and if someone is playing too rough, then that person should be taken out of the game, simple as that. But don't punish all the kids because of the actions of a few."
Jean said she'd discussed the matter further with her 8-year-old son, Thomas, who offered up his own thoughts on the matter.
"He said, 'You learn who throws hard and you learn how to dodge - that's in the name of the game,' and he shook his head," said Jean. "Pretty sad that my 8-year-old gets it and adults don't."