The Florida High School Athletic Association’s investigation into Immokalee High’s athletic program uncovered a problem that spilled over one school’s — and one county’s — boundaries.
Could thousands of Florida prep athletes be technically ineligible because they are international students whose schools did not fill out a necessary form? Did this situation arise from confusion over a form that some schools assumed only pertained to foreign exchange students?
While investigating three overage Immokalee soccer players, the FHSAA found that not only had Immokalee not filed EL4 forms for its international students, but neither had Collier County’s other high schools. The association then found the problem affected several other counties and that as many as 20,000 student-athletes could be ineligible.
The FHSAA’s Board of Directors will discuss federal immigration laws as they pertain to international students not in foreign exchange programs both today in the Legislative Committee session and with the entire board on Friday at their meeting in Jacksonville.
Even before the FHSAA discovered Immokalee’s international student issue, it had plans to ensure confusion would not occur in the future. And it will start with the bylaws with which it governs.
The FHSAA, Florida’s governing body for all high school athletics, is planning a total rewrite of its bylaws and policies. FHSAA commissioner John Stewart said the committee to head these revisions currently is being formed and the process should take about 18 months.
“We hope we can erase some of the confusion in this process,” Stewart said, stressing that the policy on international students will be included in the review.
The association also is ramping up enforcement. Before, compliance enforcement came from one person, the associate commissioner for compliance and eligibility. The FHSAA recently contracted three more people to act as field investigators and is hunting for a fourth.
“When you quadruple your work force in that area, I think that will help us a great deal,” Stewart said. “The area we cover stretches from Key West to Pensacola.”
The FHSAA’s jurisdiction spans 67 counties and more than 700 schools. So it was one person’s job — now the job of four and possibly five — to investigate compliance issues in one of America’s largest and most populous states. And Florida is not divided into separate sections like New York or California, so compliance issues come to the state office with no middle man.
Is that too much for an organization the size of the FHSAA, a private non-profit with 22 full-time employees, to handle? Some think so.
Bradenton Prep athletic director Manny Zafiros, who has nothing but good to say of the FHSAA, said the organization could use a few more staff members.
“I think it is (small), personally,” Zafiros said. “It’s not the quantity there, but the quality. The FHSAA has a lot of high-quality people working for them.”
Cheryl Golden, executive director of the 36-member Greater Miami Athletic Conference, agreed that the FHSAA could use more people and that it was unfair for one person to handle the compliance issues for an entire state. The new contracted field investigators, she added, will be a big help.
“They already have (helped),” she said. “If you look at the appeals going to the board of directors, you can see it’s already helping. Two of those cases (Gulliver Prep and Bay Point in the South Florida area) were investigated by two of those people under contract.”
Stewart said the cooperation of member schools is essential in a state this size.
“We are as good as the athletic directors and coaches in the state that follow the rules and are diligent in doing that,” he said. “We really depend on them.”
The FHSAA pointed out a group diligent in filing the required paperwork. Private schools — Bradenton Prep and Jacksonville-Bolles were two specifically mentioned — topped the list. Private school athletic directors said the process likely is easier for them than it is for public schools.
In the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, the court ruled that public schools and school personnel could not adopt policies or take actions to deny students access to education based on immigration status. Public schools can not inquire about a student’s immigration status, including requiring documentation of a student’s legal status.
The FHSAA has strongly maintained that immigration status is irrelevant. The association’s main concerns are the age of the student (those older than 19 years, 9 months are ineligible) and his eligibility status (the student has four years from the time he enters ninth grade to participate).
The EL4 form asks if a student has a J-1 visa (as part of a recognized foreign exchange program) or an F-1 visa (for international students who traditionally pay to attend one year of public school).
As private institutions, schools like Bolles and Bradenton Prep aren’t bound by the same rules as public schools, and can ask whether a student is born in this country or another. With that information in hand, those schools know exactly how many forms they have to fill out.
“We don’t have that many international students,” Hollywood-Chaminade Madonna athletic director and football coach Mark Guandolo said. “But you’ve got to do it. It doesn’t matter if the kid has been here since first grade. You still have to do it.”
Zafiros said he always makes sure his international student forms are up to date. He understands how there might be some confusion with the rules, but wondered why the confusion has lasted for so long.
“You can’t assume,” Zafiros said. “If I’m not sure about what something appears to be, I get on the phone and make sure it’s clear.”
Zafiros said the FHSAA always has been helpful in clearing up any of his confusions.
“The lines of communication are always open,” Zafiros said. “If I call them, I’ve never not had a call back the same day.”
Golden, whose conference houses mostly public schools and one private school, also said a proactive stance could clear up many headaches.
“I’m not surprised that there’s confusion,” she said. “If you have 10 people read the same rule, you’ll get 10 different interpretations. I think a lot of these schools have to ask themselves, if they had just picked up the phone, where would they be?”