TAMPA — One year into a new athletic transfer policy, the Hillsborough County school district is defending itself in a lawsuit that argues the whole process is illegal.
The suit, filed by Sickles High School senior Justin Fragnito, contends state law gives him the right to play football because he has been at Sickles since the beginning of the school year.
Fragnito, 18, is represented by Peter Hobson, the same lawyer who brought a lawsuit in Pasco County on behalf of soccer standout Michael Mazza.
At issue in both lawsuits are policies — allowed by the Florida High School Athletic Association — that require students past their freshman year to sit out playing for an entire calendar year if they change schools.
That might be all right with the FHSAA, which is charged with overseeing state law, Hobson said. But state law gives students a right to play if they have been at the school since the school year began.
Fragnito, a 6-foot, 210-pound linebacker, transferred to Sickles after spending his previous years at the private Jesuit High School. Fragnito was told he would not be able to play because of the new Hillsborough district policy.
Sickles, which was 8-1 before Friday's game against Alonso, won the Class 7A, District 7 championship this year — the first district title in school history. The Gryphons face Plant City next week in the playoffs.
Hillsborough devised its new policy in the aftermath of an eligibility scandal that cost Armwood High School a district title in 2011.
Like other policies around the state, it's designed to prevent schools and coaches from recruiting marquee players out of their neighborhood schools.
While the intent might be noble, Hobson said, the execution has come at the expense of student rights.
"At the core of these situations, the real problem is that high school administrators loathe athletics," Hobson said.
The Hillsborough policy requires schools to turn down student athletes for one calendar year if they transfer after the ninth grade.
Four sets of exceptions are allowed, but those decisions must be made by a committee outside the school. For example: If the family has made a "full and complete move" or if the district has transferred the students because of special learning needs, the committee can allow the transfer.
There have been more than 400 such requests this year, said athletics director Lanness Robinson. At least 90 percent have been granted. Those who are denied can continue on to the School Board.
Robinson would not comment on the lawsuit but said that overall, schools and athletes are adjusting to the new system.
"Any time you start something new, you are going to have growing pains," Robinson said. "But obviously, it's gotten a lot better."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]