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Hillsborough getting tough on student-athlete transfers

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 02:56 PM
TAMPA -

Enough is enough.

After years of student athletes jumping between high schools in Hillsborough County's public system with seeming impunity, county athletic director Lanness Robinson is in the process of formulating district rules that would attempt to place stricter controls on the transfer process and eligibility.

"We're talking about a county-wide policy change," Robinson said. "We're not talking about a procedure or anything like that. It would be a major policy change in enrollment."

Although early in the process, Robinson said several options are being discussed. One possible measure to control the flow of student athletes transferring between schools: force them to sit out of action one full year unless receiving approval from a review committee. The committee would be made up of a select number of high school principals, administrators and advisers -- but no coaches.

Robinson said the recent investigation into Armwood's football program by the Florida High School Athletics Association, which claims the parents of five Hawks players falsified documents to gain entry to the school, is not the reason he and the district are trying to take action now. But Robinson does hope the high-profile case does become the catalyst to finally get something done about the transfer issue.

And the way many coaches see it in the county, something has to be done.

"Transfers happen everywhere but here, there just seems to be a blatant disrespect for the rules," said new Chamberlain football coach D.J. Mayo, whose previous coaching stint was in Volusia County. "From what I was told before I moved over here and since I got here seeing it for myself, I'm like, 'Wow, Hillsborough County really is the Wild, Wild West."

To explore options and solutions, Robinson recently staged a meeting at King High with select athletic directors, coaches and administrators. They discussed what, if anything, the school district can do about the seeming flood of student athletes transferring between schools in the county's public system.

"Anything the committee recommends still has to run the process and I don't have control of the process,'' Robinson said. "But this (Armwood) situation may be the catalyst to help bring awareness so that some things may change."

Not all coaches feel a set of rules are necessary. In fact, some argue transfer rules unfairly single out student athletes, not students who transfer for such reasons as trying to attend a school with, say, a better music or math program.

But many coaches in Hillsborough County believe transfers have become far too easy for students looking for a better situation athletically.

"It (transferring) is so out of control, something has to be done," said longtime Wharton football coach David Mitchell. "It has to be a tough rule, something that makes them and their parents think twice before they transfer. And that's why it needs to be 365 days (of athletic ineligibility)."

Since the late 1990s, Miami-Dade County Public Schools have had a policy that forces a student athlete to sit out one full calendar year if transferring after the ninth grade. These rules were adopted shortly after Miami Senior was stripped of its 6A boys basketball state crown in 1998. Among the violations were players living outside the school's boundaries.

Miami-Dade County bylaws and policies now state "any student who enrolls in a school other than the home school serving his/her home address will forfeit athletic eligibility for one (1) calendar year commencing from the date of enrollment."

Miami-Dade athletic director Cheryl Golden said students who make a legal move into a new school zone are exempt from the sit-out rule. But parents of those students have to submit verifiable proof of address change and the student must have resided with that parent or guardian continuously the previous year.

Golden said exceptions are granted to Miami-Dade's transfer rule. But those must go through the district's Superintendent's Athletic Eligibility Transfer Review Committee (AETRC) for approval. She says AETRC meets once a month and, during busy periods, reviews 20 or more cases in one session.

Has the one-year sit out policy worked in large district like Miami-Dade, which has 37 public high schools with a full slate of sports teams?

''To the best of our ability, it has," Golden said. "Do some parents still get around it? Do some still lie? Well, to the best of our ability it has at least controlled it and cut down on the (transfer) problem."

Robinson said whatever his committee comes up with as a final proposal to deter athletic transfers would be presented to Hillsborough County Superintendent MaryEllen Elia for her review. From there, the policy change would require other steps, including review by district attorneys and approval by school board officials. Robinson said he would like to have a policy in place before next fall but, again, stresses it's still early in the process.

In years past, coaches say athletic transfers were usually done in less visible fashion -- during the summer, before the start of the next school year. But it's become increasing common to see student athletes switch schools throughout the year, even in the middle of the semester.

Polk County athletic director Don Bridges says his district, where there are 16 public high schools, is adopting a policy of no mid-semester transfers starting this fall. Unless approved by the superintendent of Polk County schools, students will only be allowed to transfer before the first day of school or first day of the second semester.

Bridges, however, said he would prefer to see the one-year sit-out rule for transfers adopted statewide.

"That's what we need," Bridges said. "Kids need to learn that if you start at one school as a ninth grader, you should stay there."

In Hillsborough County, transferring isn't an issue solely for Armwood. And it's not just football. That's why Robinson invited county coaches from other sports -- basketball, baseball, volleyball, softball and wrestling -- to his transfer committee meeting.

But football is where the lion's share of full NCAA scholarships are found. And with the cost of tuition nearly $200 per semester hour at in-state public universities and more than twice that figure for out-of-state schools, a football scholarship can equate to thousands of dollars at a four-year school.

On its surface, a new bill passed by the Florida legislature, House Bill 1403, appears to make transferring even easier. Regarding students who transfer, the bill states a school must allow a student who transfers to be eligible to compete for an athletic team "with approval of the district school board."

But Robinson and other county athletic directors said the specific wording of the new bill leaves it in the hands of the school district to decide on its own policy regarding transfers.

"That wording (of the bill) is new language," Robinson said. "The district always had the power (to do something about its transfers), but the laws weren't always in the district's favor. Now that the law's in the district's favor, it encourages -- and almost requires -- the district to do something."

Before the new house bill, Robinson said part of the problem enforcing transfer rules in public schools for athletic purposes had been state-mandated school choice programs. In Hillsborough, it's called "choice options." This is a lottery-type online application process permitting students to attend a school outside their assigned area.

At first, these options were magnet schools such as Tampa Bay Tech, which offers specialized career training. Now, however, the choice program has grown to include non-magnet schools that are not at capacity, or "under cap." During a recent application period for choice options, nearly half the county's high schools -- including Armwood -- were under cap.

With school choice as it is now, students can attain a legitimate transfer for academic reasons and be eligible to play sports immediately. But when the house bill goes into effect July 1, Robinson says each school district can decide to place additional rules on the transfer and eligibility of student athletes.

At Monday's news conference regarding the FHSAA's tentative findings about Armwood football, Elia acknowledged the county's variety of choice options currently do offer a loop hole to parents trying to enroll their children into a school for athletic reasons. But she also said the district is determined to put a halt to that.

''We are committed to choice in this district but what has to happen is every student, if they are transferring, has to go through that transfer with the choice requirements in mind," Elia said. "But what we find is that despite the fact that it (choice) is available, students and parents don't always follow the rules. And they're going to follow the rules or they're not going to play.

"We have to become very, very vigilant."

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