JACKSONVILLE BEACH — The confusion over international student athletic eligibility that has vexed Immokalee and other high schools across the state will not be there much longer.
The Florida High School Athletic Association will draft a revision to its international student eligibility policy — possibly adding a third category for immigrant students — which the Board of Directors will vote on at its meeting on Sept. 24-25.
FHSAA commissioner John Stewart and associate commissioner for compliance Sonny Hester addressed the board’s legislative committee Thursday morning at the Sea Turtle Inn near Jacksonville. The two acknowledged an immediate need to make a revision.
Currently, the FHSAA requires Florida’s high schools to fill out an EL4 form for all international students — defined by the FHSAA as any student not born in the United States. In investigating a case of three adults playing for the Immokalee High boys soccer team, the association discovered that Immokalee had not filled out EL4 forms for those three students or any other student-athlete.
The FHSAA also found that none of Collier County’s high schools filled out EL4 forms for any international student-athlete except for a handful of foreign exchange students and that other counties had been lax in doing so as well. Hester said he did not know for sure how many Lee County schools were or were not filling out the EL4 forms.
“If you take a number that I heard, some 850,000 residents in Florida, who are not citizens of the United States, estimate that 40 percent are of school age and estimate the number of those who play sports,” Stewart said, “the number could be staggering.”
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Stewart added that, although the FHSAA has planned a full-scale review and revision of its bylaws and policies, something needed to be in place sooner. The draft of that policy revision will be available at the board’s September meeting.
Stewart said one possible revision would be to break the EL4 form into three categories from its current two. It would include foreign exchange students who have a J-1 visa, international students who have an F-1 visa and normally stay one year, and immigrant students whose families move to Florida from other countries.
The form currently has two categories, asking for either a J-1 or an F-1 visa, but there are many students whose families have moved to the U.S. from abroad that do not fit either category. Collier County has not issued F-1 visas.
“The schools are not sending in EL4 forms because they don’t consider these students international students,” Stewart said.
Some public schools across the state have been hesitant to ask students for any immigration information because of a Supreme Court ruling. In the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler vs. Doe, the court ruled that public schools cannot deny school-age students an education based on their immigration status. The FHSAA has strongly maintained that immigration status is irrelevant and that the association only seeks information on age and when the student enters ninth grade.
This revision should solve that problem. Naples High activities coordinator Ernie Modugno, recently elected to the FHSAA Board of Directors, said there are a couple of answers that could work.
“I think one of two things, and this is just my opinion,” Modugno said. “I think maybe a third classification would help us process or gain eligibility for this group. Or I think a solution to the problem is that there is no problem. I think the bylaws that are in place right now, where we are expected to have primary sources for academic history as well as birth certificates or passports for non-immigrant students, we’re already applying those to immigrant students.
“There’s a general realization that this is a widespread problem we need to deal with at the state and national level,” he continued. “It’s not just an Immokalee High School issue or a Collier County issue.”
No decision was made to punish any Collier schools for not filing EL4 forms in the past, but FHSAA officials said their main objective was to look forward and solve the problem.
“I don’t know,” Stewart said. “We’ll have to look and see. Too much is focused on that as opposed to what’s the fix for the program. We’re trying to concentrate on what is the way to deal with this, so it doesn’t come up again.”
Immokalee High School football coach John Weber, whose 2004 Class 2A state championship could possibly be affected if the FHSAA chooses to issue penalties, was happy to hear Stewart’s comments.
“I think that is certainly the logical way to put that,’’ said Weber, whose school is one of many not to have filled out the EL4 forms. “They could do whatever they wanted. Logically, I couldn’t see them opening themselves up to a lot of major lawsuits. It’s easier to address the problem now, going forward instead of in reverse.
“If that’s what they do, I think they’ve come to a very good decision. I think that’s a decision that everyone can deal with rather than basically create mass chaos.’’
The legislative committee did stress the need to require age and eligibility information for all students, and some members were stunned that adults age 23, 26 and 30 could enter a high school and join a sports team. Committee chairman Marcos Moran, a Cuban refugee who came to America in 1962, said the need for proper records transcends national boundaries.
“As a Cuban refugee, it was very hard to obtain those kinds of documents, but we got them one way or another,” he said. “The bottom line is that we want to ensure that the 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds in our schools are competing against other 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds.”
As for Immokalee’s overage students issue, Hester said after the meeting that the investigation’s findings are on his desk.
Any of Immokalee’s district or regional soccer titles won over the past three years, and the 2005 season’s district title, could be taken away because of the overage student-athletes’ participation on those teams. Blandel Jean, the 30-year-old, played the last three seasons on the soccer team and participated in two regular-season games and two playoff games as the backup kicker on the football team in 2005. The other two overage student-athletes have not been identified, but both played on the soccer team.
When Hester returns Monday, he and Stewart will either discuss possible consequences or ask any other questions of Immokalee’s staff. A decision, Hester said, should be made within the next two weeks and could come as early as next week.
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Sports Editor Greg Hardwig contributed to this story.