News

Do high school athletes change schools illegally? It's hard to prove

Written by Teddy Feinberg/The York Daily Record | Aug 10, 2017 6:57 AM
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Shannon Valenti throws a football during a youth training session at West York High School on July 27. Valenti attended Central York High School for two years before transferring to Northeastern for his junior year and part of his senior year. His parents had moved out of the district, which meant he had to choose a new school. He then returned to Central York to graduate this past spring. (Photo: Chris Dunn/GametimePA)

(York) -- Three years ago, Shannon Valenti faced a decision that would dramatically shape his future in high school athletics.

Valenti, who played quarterback at Central York High School, had to make a move. His parents had separated, and both left the school district.

Should Shannon move in with his father in West York and attend school there, or with his uncle in Manchester and go to Northeastern High School?

He said feeling comfortable with a football program was a top priority -- and that's why he chose Northeastern.

Valenti said he attended a couple football practices and talked it through with some teammates, and decided it was the right fit. 

"Football definitely played a big part in what school I was going to. That's what I wanted to do," said Valenti, 18.

Valenti started two years for Northeastern, which was one of the YAIAA's top teams with him at quarterback. Then, following the 2016 fall semester, Valenti returned to Central York and graduated. Valenti said his girlfriend's mother, who lives in the school district, became his legal guardian, which allowed him to go back.

Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association rules stipulate that student-athletes are not allowed to transfer for athletic reasons. And while Valenti acknowledged that football played a role in his school choice, he said it was not the reason he transferred.

"I didn't want to leave my friends. We dreamed about varsity, doing this and that....But I ended up having to do it anyway," Valenti said.

Regardless, when players transfer, it can raise the general question: Was the move made in part or perhaps entirely for athletic purposes? It's an issue the PIAA faces every year.

Coaches and administrators have said it's something they deal with too, and it creates problems related to illegal recruiting and competitive balance, and is simply against the spirit of high school athletics.

"The current rule is almost impossible to police," said Red Lion head football coach Jesse Shay. "We all know an athletic transfer when we see it. But it's nearly impossible to prove the intent. Something needs to change."

Bill Ackerman, the former head boys' basketball coach at West York Area High School, said if such rules and regulations are going to be levied, then they must be enforced.

"Until the PIAA grows teeth, this kind of funny business is going to happen," he said.

Tough to prove

Ackerman, who coached boys' basketball for 18 years at West York, said players transferring within the YAIAA happened occasionally during his career with the Bulldogs.

He said some were easy to identify as athletic transfers. Others were more difficult.

"When it comes to the better athletes, the more high-profile transfers, when it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's going to quack like one too," Ackerman said. "Average athletes, that's a little tougher to prove. It can be a variety of things, and it's not a one-size-fits-all situation. There are exceptions -- a job transfer, a marriage breakup. But when none of that passes the litmus test, I think you can go back to the duck test."

Don Seidenstricker, the former athletic director and football coach at South Western High School, said there were typically two questions he faced as an administrator when reviewing student-athlete transfers: Was the athlete recruited? And, did the transfer occur with athletic intent?

Seidenstricker said determining recruitment isn't difficult. Often, emails or text messages are available, and even if they aren't, recognizing the recruiting process is typically cut and dry.

Proving athletic intent is harder, Seidenstricker said.

For starters, Seidenstricker said, athletics is usually going to play a part in an athlete's and a family's decision to make a move, whether it's publicly acknowledged or not.

He also added it's often a case of he-said, she-said, and almost always falls in favor of the athlete.

"How are you going to prove what people are thinking and what their values are?" Seidenstricker asked. "It's like legislating morality. I don't think we can do that." 

Changes coming?

For a student to transfer, principals from the school he or she is transferring from and the one they're transferring to must sign an athletic transfer waiver. If the accepting school does not sign the waiver, the student-athlete must sit out athletic events for a calendar year. In the YAIAA, if the accepting school signs but the departing one does not, then a committee hearing at the District 3 level takes place to determine if the student-athlete is allowed to play.

On May 24, a proposal was presented by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Director Association to the PIAA that would change the athletic transfer waiver policy. The athletic directors' association would like to eliminate the waiver process entirely, and require all students sit out a year of competitive varsity athletics unless they meet one of five exceptions:

• A bona fide move by parents. 

• A legal change of custody.

• Closure of school.

• Hardship case, such as bullying or harassment, at the previous school.

• A transfer to a residential public school -- meaning if a student attends a private or parochial school and transfers to the public school where they take legal residence.

Amy Scheuneman, the athletic director at North Hills School District in Pittsburgh, helped draft the proposal. Scheuneman is also on the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League board of directors, and said her district can see over 200 student-athlete transfers a year. District 7, comprised of roughly 140 schools, is one of the largest districts in the state.

"If it's a black and white rule it would be easier to enforce and applied equally throughout the state," she said. "Right now, anybody can interpret that rule and look at it through their own lens."

On May 24 the PIAA board referred the proposal to its competition committee, Scheuneman said. The competition committee is scheduled to meet again in October to discuss what changes, if any, it will recommend.

Ron Kennedy, District 3 chairman and a member of the PIAA competition committee, said that while the current rule is a good one, "it does need to be tweaked a little."

Kennedy said the first order of business is tightening up the the transfer waiver form. He said that at times, the form is simply signed without much thought. 

The competition committee is looking at adding some check boxes, some dates and further documentation so that the spirit of the transfer waiver is followed more stringently, he said.

Kennedy said the transfer issue is a hot topic, and that it's a national issue that goes beyond Pennsylvania. 

In Florida, student-athletes are allowed to transfer freely, as long as they check off some key boxes in their request -- age requirements and academic eligibility among them. A seat must also be open in the school the student-athlete would like to transfer to.

Kyle Niblett, a public relations representative for the Florida High School Athletic Association, said one area the state cracks down on is recruiting.

A first-time violation for a coach found guilty of recruiting a student-athlete results in a $5,000 fine. A second-time infraction brings another $5,000 fine plus suspension without pay for 12 months. And a third means a $5,000 fine, and the coach's teaching certificate could be nullified for up to three years.

Said Niblett of the open-transfer policy: "It's a lot more transparent and we're able to find (violations) more quickly, especially on the recruiting side."

He did say one drawback for the policy is that student-athletes are more prone to pick up and leave when they encounter tough times at a school or an athletic program.

"If there's a kid that's not happy at one school, 20 years ago a parent might say, 'You're sticking through it. You're overcoming this obstacle,'" Niblett pointed out. "One of the cons of this is, once you face adversity for the first time, 'You know what, I'm going to transfer across town.'"

Kennedy said one of the primary reasons Pennsylvania does have an athletic transfer bylaw is to create competitive balance.

"Otherwise, the rich get richer," Kennedy said.

Niblett said there are competitive balance issues, but none that don't exist in other states and none that didn't exist in Florida before open-transfer policy was implemented. 

Niblett said an athlete can transfer to multiple schools season-to-season, but turnover issues typically occur year-to-year.

He added that athletes from other states often transfer for athletic reasons despite rules in place to prevent it.

"They've been doing it for years....They've used every trick in the book," Niblett said.

Douglas Bohannon, the athletic director at Eastern Lebanon County School District, said the onus falls on Pennsylvania schools and its administrators to do the right thing.

"There's a process in place -- the principal to principal sign-off," he said. "Our hope is that schools do the right thing and follow the process with integrity."

The case of Seth Bernstein

Will the William Penn football team have a new starting quarterback in 2017?

Seth Bernstein, who was a sophomore starter last year for the Eastern York Golden Knights, transferred to William Penn and attended classes at the school last spring.

Bernstein's mother, Cherie, said her son transferred because of "bullying" he received last year.

Seth Bernstein said he was bullied by teammates on the Eastern York football team and that he was treated like an outsider.

"I was the quarterback, I got a lot of publicity. They didn't cope with that well," Bernstein said. "They would say stuff, write stuff on social media. Practices weren't fun for me, with them saying stuff."

Bernstein's brother, Trey, who started every game for Eastern York football last year at center, will attend William Penn for the 2017-18 academic year, according to Cherie Bernstein. He, also, wasn't happy with his experience at Eastern York. 

Cases like the Bernsteins' can cause coaches and ADs to wonder whether a student is moving to a new school for academic or athletic reasons. But Cherie Bernstein says while the alleged bullying took place within Eastern's athletic program, that it's a school-related issue and she wants her sons to have a better overall high school experience.

The Bernsteins have relocated to York city, and according to Cherie, William Penn has signed the transfer waiver. Now, the parties wait for Eastern to sign off.

Eastern York athletic director Don Knaub and superintendent Darla Pianowski declined comment for the story, as did head football coach Jeff Mesich.

When asked about Bernstein's case, William Penn football coach Russ Stoner pointed out an athletic transfer is against the rules in Pennsylvania. 

"For me, I sort of stay out of the whole thing," Stoner said. "The political piece to me is not somewhere I want to be. I want to coach kids, I want to work with kids. 

"At the end of the day I coach whoever shows up," Stoner said. "If they are part of the York City School District, that's the guys that we coach."

Stoner added that he's lost student-athletes to transfers during his career, and that student-athletes transferring schools is happening "all over the place."

Valenti said a lot goes into such a move that someone outside the family that's involved wouldn't understand - from performance on the field to social life off it.

"I think it's a good idea, especially if they don't like the environment they're in," he said. "Some kids are in the same environment since they were 5, over and over. If they don't fit in with them, getting a fresh start, with new people and coaches, that can be a good idea."

 

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

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