Washington school choice legislation allows students to attend a school outside their attendance area for academic purposes.
It didn’t address the potentially stickier situation regarding movement by athletes.
Which made for a hectic couple of days this past week for West Valley High School administration and coaches, whose basketball team was in danger of forfeiting its district semifinal victory over Cheney. Under state choice legislation, freshman Kris Sly, who lives in the East Valley School District, is enrolled as a student at WV High.
He played in the waning moments of last Saturday’s 74-55 Eagles win.
Because of circumstances surrounding an unrelated case, it came to light that Sly was not eligible for varsity play based on Washington Interscholastic Activities Association rules regarding choice student-athletes.
On Thursday, following a three-hour meeting of Frontier League principals and athletic directors, WV’s victory was allowed to stand.
The principals voted 7-0 in favor of West Valley principal Cleve Penberthy’s written proposal, which put the blame for the WIAA rules violation squarely on the school and not on the player or team.
Under Penberthy’s proposal, Sly became ineligible for further varsity competition this year, unless approved in a hearing.
The school is to apologize for the confusion regarding the technical rules violation. West Valley is on probation for a year, will adhere strictly to the WIAA choice rule and undergo a comprehensive review of its choice-related situations.
“There was clearly confusion,” said Penberthy. “It was an unwitting violation and kids should not suffer.”
In order to protect athletic integrity, WIAA rules prohibit a choice student from playing a varsity sport for one year unless approved by district waiver.
The rule, said WIAA assistant executive director and legal counsel John Olson, stemmed originally from movement within middle schools.
Initially those youngsters were denied access to activities. But when that was deemed unwise and when choice became law, the two were tied together to discourage the potential for recruiting of athletes, or their movement to traditionally strong sports schools.
WV athletic director Wayne McKnight said that he, like other athletic directors, was under the mistaken impression that if a student “choiced” into a school prior to his freshman year that he could be immediately eligible at the varsity level.
Based on his interpretation of the rule, McKnight assured WV basketball coach Joe Feist that Sly could play varsity basketball . “My decision was based on facts. I went through every step and took every precaution,” said McKnight. “I honestly believed I had the right answers.”
He didn’t. When the parent of another choice student discovered that the girl, as a freshman, couldn’t compete in track at neighboring Freeman, West Valley learned of its infraction and reported its error.
Not without producing some anxious moments for McKnight and the basketball team.
Despite the rules, there is still inconsistent eligibility enforcement for athletes who are approved or denied capriciously because of hardship hearings and legal action.
To the credit of Frontier League officials, they realized that the West Valley violation was unintentional and that Sly had no impact on the game’s outcome.
“What impressed me is they focused on the right target,” said Penberthy. “They stepped up and protected the right person.”