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Exclusion Stirs Heated Debate

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    LOS ALAMOS— High school freshmen Heidi Lewis and Brian Davenport have a winning speech competition routine, but it didn't do them much good at this year's state tournament.
    The entire Jemez Mountain Homeschool Speech and Debate Team can no longer compete in tournaments because they are not members of the New Mexico Activities Association.
    And, as home-schoolers, they can't become members under the current regulations.
    Team members are angry and disappointed— the team has been participating in state tournaments for seven years.
    As it turns out, it shouldn't have, according to NMAA.
    "I worked really hard all year on my speeches," said Lewis, a 14-year-old Los Alamos resident. "I felt like my dignity had been stripped away. I felt awful knowing we couldn't compete on fair grounds."
    The controversy is cloudy. Home-schoolers believe they are being discriminated against. But the NMAA says home-schoolers have equal opportunities.
    At the state tournament March 11-13 in Portales, the speech students were permitted to participate in preliminary rounds on exhibition status but not to go on to finals even if they qualified. The debate students were shut out completely.
    The 13-member team learned it had been banned the day before a tournament in Taos and two weeks before the state tournament, when it received a letter from the NMAA.
    "They're not members," said Karen Honeycutt, who was NMAA interim executive director at the time.
    She said the state debate association representative has missed NMAA Activities Council meetings. "They didn't know these rules, so they've really violated these rules," she said.
    But Ellie Lasater, president of the New Mexico Speech and Debate Association and speech and debate coach at Valley High School in Albuquerque, said she didn't know about the meetings.
    "I have never been told that I was to come to a meeting," she said.
    The rules apply to all home-schoolers in New Mexico, and that disappoints some in-school teams.
    "It's a ruling that covers all of these small groups that we in the schools would like to compete with," Lasater said.
    "The whole speech and debate thing, it revolves around the law of the land, the Constitution," said 15-year-old Davenport. "It's ironic that they're keeping us out. They're discriminating against us, which is most definitely against the Constitution."
    Team head coach Paul Kressin agreed. The NMAA action amounts to discrimination against a class of students— home-schoolers, he said.
    "Our position is this: Nowhere in state law is categorical discrimination allowed," Kressin said. "It's just not acceptable. The NMAA needs to start obeying the law."
    Kressin cites language in the law that says, "The rules established by the New Mexico Activities Association for the organization, regulation and enforcement of interscholastic activities shall support equal educational opportunities for every student."
    Honeycutt said the home-schoolers do have equal opportunities and are not discriminated against.
    The Jemez Mountain Homeschool team has not tried to talk to her about the problem, she said. Team coaches said they haven't had any luck getting the attention of NMAA officials.
    When Lewis and Davenport presented their duo interpretation at the state tournament in Portales earlier this month, they did well enough to have gone on to the final round— but they weren't permitted.
    Their performance of Hansel and Gretel as written in "Open to Interpretation" by Ken Bradbury includes the children's tale told as a soap opera, a Dragnet-style murder mystery, a Shakespearean play and other genres.
    "To shove or not to shove. That is the question," Lewis says as she portrays an Elizabethan Gretel pondering whether to push the witch into the oven.
    Honeycutt says there is a potential solution, but it won't be easy or quick.
    In the early 1990s, home schools joined together, formed an association and paid dues to become members of NMAA, eligible to compete in academic activities but not in athletics, she said.
    But within a few years, the NMAA leadership voted that home school participation would no longer be allowed.
    She said home-schoolers could try once again to form an association, pay dues and become members. They would need the approval of the NMAA board and of the member schools through a referendum process.
    The Legislature also could act to change the rules and ensure home-schoolers can compete.
    In the meantime, however, other speech and debate groups share the Jemez Mountain team's concerns.
    "NMAA caters to the sports teams. The speech and debate people, the music people— we take a back seat," said Cat Bennett, speech and debate coach at Taos High School. "I don't think we have been treated very well."
    Jemez Mountain students remain discouraged and disappointed.
    "I usually win awards at tournaments," said 17-year-old senior Josh Spill who last year won second place in expository speaking at the state tournament. "It was really hard for me to see people take awards I might have been able to take myself."
    The issue is emotional.
    "We've worked so hard. To be kicked in the teeth hurts," Kressin said.