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Matthew and Michael Senibaldi, both 12, have circulated an online petition in hopes of convincing the Windham School Board to reconsider their recent decision to remove dodgeball from the district curriculum. The boys, both students at Windham Middle School, are the sons of School Board member Dennis Senibaldi. (Courtesy)

Windham dodgeball decision to get a new look

Following a lengthy discussion at Tuesday night's meeting, the Windham School Board voted unanimously to reconsider its decision to remove dodgeball and other "human target" games from the district's physical education curriculum.

Handmade signs reading "Live Free or Dodgeball" hung in the hallways as students, staff members and parents flocked to the Windham Middle School cafeteria Tuesday, with many speaking out against the board's March 21 decision.

After debating the topic for well over an hour, Chairman Michael Joanis said that considering the passion demonstrated by parents and petitioners, "I'm at least willing to ask administration to take another look at the curriculum in general and expand our scope to include student and parent comments."

The board agreed to revisit the issue, when administrators and educators return before them with a modified plan at a later date.

Last month, the board voted 4 to1 in favor of eliminating dodgeball games, noting that a parent had complained about their child being bullied in gym class during such games that standards dictated by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) suggested a removal was an appropriate step.

The board's decision, opposed only by board member Dennis Senibaldi, generated controversy in the weeks to follow, with stories on the Windham School District stretching across the nation.

Superintendent Henry LaBranche said the district had received several student-generated petitions, which were signed by hundreds of students in both the middle and high schools.

Seventh grader Matthew Senibaldi, who helped circulate one of several petitions, said he felt bullying "wasn't really a problem because the school has already set up a process to punish them." "Technically one of the strategies of this game is to hit people and get them out of the game," Matthew said. "So people who think they're being targeted really aren't - that's just the point of the game."

Parent Paul Gosselin spoke on behalf of his daughter, Renee, a sixth grader who'd collected 170 signatures at her school.

Gosselin said Renee was home with the flu, but had really hoped to tell the school board how much she enjoys playing dodgeball.

"She's of the opinion this is all unnecessary," he told the board. " "You looked into this because of a parent's concern and then you made a decision. But what if a parent came to you and told you their son or daughter wasn't comfortable with basketball or with square dancing? You've effectively established a precedent."

Michael Senibaldi, twin brother of Matthew and son of school board member Dennis Senibaldi, held up the spongy yellow, cantaloupe-sized ball used in a typical dodgeball bout.

"We don't hit each other in the head with these because there are rules," he explained.

Another parent, Sean Donahue, said his son, a middle school student, loved playing dodgeball and as a parent, he felt the game teaches kids some important life lessons.

"I think we're doing a disservice from our children as a whole by not supporting competition in our schools," Donahue said. "These kids have to learn how to compete in the real world. It's not easy out there."

Resident Ken Eyring agreed, noting that NASPE also "takes a strong stance against marching bands and all competitive sports at middle school level."

"We spend a great deal of time and money to make sure people understand how to deal with bullying situations," Eyring said. "This is an opportunity to teach children how to deal with real life situations. This is a slippery slope. What are we going to take away next?"

Another parent suggested the board reconsider its decision, noting that a better option might be to give the students more choices and allow them to select which games they'd like to play in their gym classes.

School Board member Stephanie Wimmer stressed that the board "hadn't really banned anything" but rather "removed human target games from the curriculum."

"This just means you're not graded on your lack of ability to play these games, but we didn't 'ban' anything," Wimmer said. "If kids still want to play it in gym, if there's an open gym concept, in my mind, I don't think this has been taken off the table."

Board member Jerome Rekart echoed that statement.

"The Windham School Board has not banned dodgeball," he said. "Unfortunately this has been misreported by the media and even a member of this board. As a board member I'm not concerned with either banning or mandating which activities are included in the curriculum. Curriculum should be about standards and objectives."

Board member Michelle Farrell defended her previous decision, stressing that "even if just one single parent brings a concern to me, I will address it."

Senibaldi also stood by his earlier stance, noting that a recent email sent to LaBranche informed him that the board's decision did, in fact, constitute a ban.

"I have a letter here from our superintendent stating it cannot be taught during school hours, with the exception of an afterschool club," Senibaldi said.

LaBranche, a former physical education teacher, said he didn't see the board's decision as "a slippery slope" but as "an opportunity."

"I recognize we as the professionals need to be good listeners, we need to process information and feedback and to be reflective to an extent," said LaBranche.

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