Prep football: Superintendent says SSAC not in compliance with federal law
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The Randolph County Superintendent of Schools said Friday that a 2010 state Supreme Court ruling does not apply to the case of Elkins High School football player L.J. Lawrence.
Lawrence, 18, was ruled ineligible last week by the Secondary School Activities Commission for violating the organization's residency requirements for student-athletes. Lawrence transferred to Elkins from Pennsylvania in the summer, and is the Tigers' leading rusher with more than 1,400 yards.
The SSAC ruled early this week that Elkins must forfeit its seven wins, which has thrown the Class AAA and Class AA playoff races into chaos with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
Randolph Superintendent Dr. James Phares clarified Friday an earlier statement he made regarding Lawrence's arrival in Randolph County.
"L.J. enrolled at Elkins on August 20th, the same day as everyone else. That's when enrollment actually began. He had come in prior to that, and he was registered and in the course of that process we discovered he was a homeless student," Phares said.
Lawrence is living with his grandmother in Elkins. Under the SSAC's transfer policy, a student-athlete must wait 365 days before participating in extracurricular activities if he is not living with his parents or guardian.
A letter of complaint was filed with the SSAC by a parent of a student at a rival school, leading to the investigation.
But Phares has maintained that Lawrence is protected under the U.S. Government's McKinney-Vento Act of 2002, which outlines a course of action for schools to better facilitate the educations of homeless students.
A government-penned "Frequently Asked Questions" page used to improve implementation of the act includes an item on athletics.
Question No. 77 states that "The McKinney-Vento Act requires states and school districts to eliminate barriers to school enrollment and retention for children and youth experiencing homelessness...Sports and other extra-curricular activities are school activities...Therefore, athletic associations must comply with the McKinney-Vento Act's requirement to remove barriers, by exempting homeless students from sports participation rules that students cannot meet due to their homelessness and mobility, such as attendance rules."
The SSAC has no provision for compliance with this act.
"I'm reviewing it with our attorney and the state Board of Education right now," SSAC Executive Secretary Gary Ray said Friday afternoon.
"Again, we want to do what the right thing is. We want to do what the best thing is for our schools and students. We've got to make a pretty quick decision on this."
Ray added that if SSAC lawyers, in cooperation with the state BOE, agree, a provision will be written into the SSAC bylaws that will move them into alignment with the federal mandate.
"If that's the case, that's what we'll do," he said.
Phares said that he reinstated Lawrence to the football team early Friday. The Tigers are idle this week, and conclude their regular season on Nov. 2 against Lewis County.
In 2010, the Supreme Court struck down Circuit Court Judge Carrie Webster's decision to grant an injunction to four South Charleston football players that overturned an SSAC-imposed suspension given to each for their roles in a late-game brawl with Hurricane. On Dec. 7, 2010, the Supreme Court issued its opinion saying that no circuit court judge has the authority to circumvent the rules of the SSAC.
But the McKinney-Vento Act is federally mandated, and takes precedent over state rulings. Phares said.
"Does the SSAC have any authority in this matter? They don't. We're only assuming that since he moved in with a guardian he's got to comply with their rules to sit out 365 days. He doesn't," Phares said.
"People are all worried about the playoffs and wins and losses, and that's not the point. Heck, if they want the wins we'll give them the wins," he added. "What the issue here is that the SSAC has not been in compliance with federal law for 10 years regarding their treatment of homeless students.
"Honestly, I'm shocked that nobody has looked at this."
A hearing for a preliminary injunction that would allow Lawrence to play is planned for next week. Phares said that he hopes it is not necessary.
"I have full belief that Mr. Ray and the folks at the SSAC will want to be in compliance on this, and if they are, he should be allowed to play," Phares said. "School systems have been working under the auspices of this for a long time. Some have challenged it and have been denied.
"It's a mandate that supersedes any state or local laws."