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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014
Pasco Tribune

Lawsuit challenges ruling on Pasco soccer player’s eligibility

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LAND O’ LAKES — A lawsuit filed against the Pasco County School Board aims to make a standout soccer player eligible for the Sunlake High team.

Michael Mazza, a senior at Sunlake High School, transferred to the school from Pasco High at the end of the 2012-13 school year after he was the target of constant harassment, according to his attorney.

The school district, citing a recently enacted transfer policy, has ruled Mazza ineligible to play for his new school. They also believe he may have been recruited for the team.

Mazza’s lawyer, Peter Hobson, is adamant the school district has overstepped its authority.

Hobson filed a civil suit against the Pasco County School Board, which includes a request for a temporary injunction, barring the school board from keeping Mazza off the field.

Hobson and the Mazza want a date set for a hearing as soon as possible since the 2013-14 soccer regular season began Monday.

Tuesday morning, school board attorney Dennis Alfonso and members of the school board convened a closed meeting to discuss the lawsuit.

The matter could land before a circuit judge as soon as this week, Alfonso said.

“We do not think the Pasco school board authorities properly investigated this matter nor do we think they did so objectively,” Hobson said. “The crux of this lawsuit is to get a court to acknowledge, if possible, that the Florida Legislature about two years ago passed legislation, which clearly prohibits a school board from doing that which they‘re doing in Pasco; trying to get around the rule that in Florida, every school in Florida, you are eligible to play sports at the school that you’re properly enrolled in on the first day of each school year.”

In Pasco, school board policy requires that student-athletes who transfer to a new school must sit out one calendar year. They can go before the Athletic Transfer Participation Committee, or ATPC, in an attempt to have that ruling overturned.

Pasco enacted the school transfer policy this school year. The policy mirrors one started in Hillsborough County during the fall of 2012.

The Mazzas met with the ATPC on Aug. 28 and Michael’s ineligibility was upheld. The family then requested a superintendent level appeal, which took place Sept. 10. Eight days later school board officials refused to overturn the ruling, informing the Mazzas of their decision by phone.

Mazza’s transfer stems from an April incident at Pasco High in which classroom doors had toothpicks jammed into them and glued in place by vandals.

Walls were marked with graffiti and a stolen Ford Escort was left parked in the school’s outdoor commons area.

Mazza went to the principal’s office that morning to tell school officials what he knew about the vandalism.

Michael’s father, Salvatore Mazza, a Tampa police officer, explained to the committee in August that act brought unwanted harassment to his son, leaving the family no choice but to seek a transfer.

“Michael decided to do the right thing and speak with the principal and tell them what happened,” Salvatore Mazza told the panel, according to records. “After he told school staff, he began receiving threatening phone calls.”

Despite the transfer being predicated on harassment, according to the family, Alfonso said the school district had no record of bullying complaints.

A letter from a friend’s mother confirmed the verbal threats Michael Mazza received after the prank at school. The mother said her daughter received a phone call directing threats toward Michael Mazza. The mother said she went to the school the following day to report what took place.

In her letter, the mother said school officials promised to look into the threats.

Salvatore Mazza said he went to the school days after the first threats and reported what took place. He said it was suggested his son be escorted to each of his classes by a teacher or school resource officer.

Another student provided a handwritten statement saying Mazza was the target of threats at the school.

Hobson also said Mazza could no longer eat in the school’s cafeteria with friends because of threats. He was relegated to eating lunch in a teacher’s classroom.

That teacher wrote and signed a letter stating that was the case.

A portion of the letter said: “These threats got so bad that Michael only felt safe in my classroom during his lunch period where his mother had to bring him his lunch. During this time, Michael and I had some discussions on this situation. This is the time when Michael and his family came to the conclusion he should move to another high school for his safety.”

The topic of being recruited was raised in a letter dated Oct. 28 to the Mazza family from Ray Bonti, the school district’s executive director of support services. Bonti said Pasco soccer coach Barry Grayling said Michael Mazza told him, prior to the vandalism incident, that he was transferring to Sunlake to play with friends from his club team.

When Michael Mazza was asked by county athletic director Phil Bell during the August hearing if he spoke to or met with the Sunlake soccer coach or if he knew students at Sunlake who play in his club soccer league, Mazza said he did not. He also said the majority of his club soccer teammates attend school in Hillsborough County.

Mazza, a midfielder, helped guide Pasco to a Class 3A-District 7 runner-up finish and an appearance in region semifinal. Pasco finished 13-7-1 overall.

Sunlake finished its season 28-1, advancing to the Class 3A state semifinal game and losing to eventual state champion Ponte Vedra, 3-0.

Mazza was a first-team selection on the Tribune’s All-Pasco County Boys Soccer as well as a first-teamer on the All-Sunshine Athletic Conference Boys Soccer team.

edaniels@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1860

Twitter: @EDanielsTBO

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