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Prep football: Federal law protects Elkins High athlete, superintendent says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The superintendent of Randolph County Schools said the Elkins High School football player declared ineligible to compete should be considered homeless under federal law and, therefore, should be allowed to finish the season.

The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission declared on Wednesday the player is ineligible to compete according to the organization's residency requirements.

The SSAC said Elkins must forfeit its seven wins this season as a result. The SSAC requires students who switch schools to sit out 365 days after they relocate, unless they make a legitimate change of residence.

The organization considers students' change of residence legitimate if they live with one or both of their parents, reside with a guardian after their parents' death or are placed in another home by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

But Randolph Superintendent James Phares said the student, who officials will not identify because of student privacy rules, is exempt from those requirements because the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act considers him homeless.

Students living in shelters, teenagers not living at home with their parents and children of families who have temporarily moved in with friends qualify as "homeless," according to that federal legislation.

Phares said the Elkins football player moved to the area from Pennsylvania during the summer because circumstances prevented him from living with his mother and father, forcing him to move in with his grandmother.

While Phares declined to identify the student athlete, the Daily Mail has learned he is senior L.J. Lawrence. The 6-foot, 165-pound running back moved to Randolph County in the summer. Lawrence leads the team with 1,491 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. He is not listed on the Tigers' roster posted at the SSAC website. He is listed on the team's roster on MaxPreps.com, but is listed as wearing No. 3. He appears in the team photo wearing No. 8. 

"The kid didn't have any other place to live. She took him in. Because of that he met the conditions of the McKinney-Vento Act," Phares said.

The superintendent also said the student would fall under the West Virginia Board of Education's extracurricular anti-discrimination policy.

The board's policy, however, only requires "members of both sexes, regardless of their race, color, religion, handicapping condition, age or national origin" have equal access to extracurricular activities. Homelessness is not specified in that policy.

"To us, it was a no-brainer. But our common sense isn't what the SSAC believes," Phares said.

SSAC Executive Director Gary Ray said the organization sometimes grants eligibility waivers for students who change residences, but only its board of directors has the authority to issue those waivers.

"I have to apply the rules as written," he said.

But Ray said neither Elkins High School nor Randolph County Schools contacted the SSAC about an exception for the athlete.

"They didn't call. If they felt they needed an appeal, we could have discussed that," he said.

Ray said forcing schools to forfeit wins is standard practice when a student is declared ineligible.

"We've had that happen in other areas. It's not something we want to see happen, but the responsibility of this office is to apply and enforce the rules to the best of our ability and be fair to all schools, as much as possible," he said.

Phares said the school system did not find out until recently the student needed an exemption, and said it likely would have been too late anyway. He said the SSAC's board of directors requires any requests for residency exemptions to be submitted, in writing, in mid-August. The student did not enroll at the school until Aug. 20.

Ray said board members likely could have worked something out with the school system, however. He said Elkins High School Principal David Fincham notified the SSAC the student wants to play basketball at Elkins High School once football season is over, so the board of directors will discuss a residency waiver at its November meeting.

Ray said there is no appeal process left for the student. Phares said that's not fair.

"There is no due process for this young man," Phares said. "He missed the window of time to appeal. We couldn't have got the paperwork in if we had thought he had to do so."

Because Elkins High is a member school of SSAC, the superintendent said the school could not sue the organization.

"It'd be like suing yourself," he said.

The student athlete has obtained a lawyer, however, and is trying to get a preliminary injunction granted by the Randolph County Circuit Court. Phares said the court could have a decision by today.

In 2010, Circuit Court judge Carrie Webster granted South Charleston players an injunction that allowed them to play in the Class AAA playoff semifinals after being suspended by the SSAC for their roles in a brawl that prematurely ended the Black Eagles' quarterfinal win over Hurricane. After South Charleston beat Brooke in the semifinals, the SSAC and the Brooke County Board of Education appealed Webster's ruling to the state supreme court, causing a one-week delay of the Class AAA state championship game.

The Supreme Court ruled that Webster did not have the authority to circumvent the SSAC ruling because the SSAC was an at-will organization. The ruling gave Brooke a spot in the title game.

"This Court has long recognized that the Legislature intended the WVSSAC to promulgate rules to carry out its control, supervision, and regulation of interscholastic events and that court should not interfere with the internal affairs of school activities commissions," the ruling from Dec. 7, 2010, read.

Ray said the SSAC was notified of the student's ineligibility after receiving a written complaint from a parent of an athlete at another school. He then contacted Elkins High, who reviewed football players' records and identified the ineligible student.

On Tuesday, the SSAC notified administrators at Elkins High School the school must forfeit its wins.

Ray said he did not want to identify the complainant to avoid further tension in the area.

Elkins was 7-2 this season, and was ranked eighth in the SSAC's Class AAA playoff ratings. The top 16 teams in each class qualify for the playoffs, which are scheduled to begin Nov. 9. The top eight teams earn the right to host their first-round playoff game.

The team has one game left this season, a Nov. 2 bout with Lewis County High School.

Calls to Fincham and the student athlete's lawyer, Lori Gray, were not immediately returned Thursday.

Preps Editor Derek Taylor also contributed to this report.


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