Monday, November 20, 2017
Education

Burden fell to Armwood's principal to confirm players eligibility

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TAMPA — Allegations that Armwood High School accepted falsified documents to field a championship football team have put a spotlight on the individual who signs off on the paperwork: the principal.

In the wake of an investigative report released Monday by the Florida High School Athletic Association, Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the district would review how school officials verified that players lived in the district, but nevertheless stood by Armwood principal Michael Ippolito.

She suggested that parents should be more honest.

But the FHSAA rules are clear: The buck stops with the principal, who is responsible for verifying the accuracy of residency documents required for eligibility.

And in the case of the Armwood Hawks, which included players who had moved recently to the area, the FHSAA contends there was cause for suspicion.

"There should've been a couple of areas where red flags went up," Roger Dearing, the association's executive director, said Tuesday.

Among them: The stepfather of one Armwood player is accused of getting fake utility documents from a friend who worked at Tampa Electric Co. Another is accused of using a teammate's electric bill.

Ippolito has not commented since news broke of the investigation.

FHSAA rules hold principals accountable "for the administration of all aspects of the school's interscholastic athletic program."

"I've been a principal and I've been a school superintendent, so unfortunately everything runs through a principal," Dearing said, also acknowledging the challenges. "When parents lie and falsify information, that makes a principal's job more difficult."

Principals everywhere grapple with the issue of how to police enrollment, and not just for athletes. Families fake residency to send their children to higher-achieving schools as well.

"For years we've had a culture of, 'I'll use an address. Nobody cares,' " said Hillsborough School Board chairwoman Candy Olson.

Pinellas County superintendent John Stewart, a retired executive director for FHSAA, said he expects Pinellas principals to report to FHSAA that student athletes do meet eligibility requirements.

Asked about the pressure schools feel to win games, he said: "It's more important to me to teach the kids to be honest than to win the game."

Catching those who skirt the rules is a challenge, at best.

"You come in on the first day of school and there's a line outside guidance," said Brandon High principal Carl Green. "We're at the mercy of whatever a parent brings in."

When to dig deeper is a judgment call, said Chamberlain High principal Tommy Morrill. How involved the principal is depends, in part, on how much he trusts his athletic director.

"You have to be very careful as to knowing who is coming in and why," Morrill said. "But it is a very arduous process."

It's not unheard of for a school security officer and social worker to knock at the door and ask whoever answers to point to the student's bed.

But those situations often involve attendance and not athletics, Morrill said.

He expects to see districtwide changes as a result of the Armwood scandal. Green suggested the School Board take the lead. "Powerful minds need to get together on this," he said.

Olson, whose South Tampa district includes Plant High and other sought-after schools, has long argued for a better system of enrollment with clear deterrents against fraud.

In some school districts, parents can call a hotline to turn in families who use false addresses. "Everybody takes some responsibility for this," she said. "But the district needs to clean up its process."

Board members, however, had mixed opinions as to whether a different standard should exist for a high-profile program like Armwood's.

"Just because a school is a powerhouse, relative to other schools, it does not mean there was cheating," Doretha Edgecomb said. "It could be a school with good coaching and a strong tradition. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt until it is proven otherwise."

Stacy White disagreed.

"I think it's a judgment call," he said. "When you've got a football program that has seen the level of success of an Armwood High School, you've got to almost expect, from the principal, a higher level of scrutiny to take place. I don't know that one size fits all."

Armwood has 10 business days to respond to the 45-page report. If the school can't come up with a solid defense, the football team likely will have to forfeit all 15 wins and the Class 6A state title it won in December.

"You can't go around and visit every kid's house," Dearing said. "But when a situation comes forward that has as much press as this one has, you start turning over every rock."

Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356; Joey Knight at (813) 226-3458.

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