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Pasco family sues school district over athletic transfer policy

LAND O'LAKES — The father of a standout soccer player has sued the Pasco County School District so his son can keep playing high school ball.

Salvatore Mazza contends that the district misused a 2012 state law aimed at regulating student-athlete transfers in denying his son, Michael, the chance to play his senior year at Sunlake High.

Michael was an all-conference midfielder for Pasco High last year, but won district permission to transfer to Sunlake in the spring. According to records, Michael Mazza requested a transfer to Sunlake to get away from bullying, after some Pasco students harassed him believing he had provided information leading to arrests in a school vandalism case.

Pasco School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said the district had no reports of bullying or harassment. Peter Hobson, the family's lawyer, said the family did make reports, and the school mishandled the situation, failing to keep proper records.

Documents also show that some district officials questioned whether Mazza, who led his team to an upset win over perennial powerhouse Land O'Lakes in last year's district semifinals, had been recruited to Sunlake, which didn't lose a game until the state semifinals.

A committee, and then the superintendent's designee, rejected Mazza's appeal of a new district policy requiring any student who changes schools to sit out of athletics for a year. Several other districts including Hillsborough have similar rules.

Hobson said he does not believe state law allows for such policies. He said the law is clear that a student is eligible for athletics "in the school in which he or she first enrolls each school year."

"It appears as if he has a statutory right … to play at that new school as long as he was enrolled on the first day of classes," Hobson said.

State Sen. Kelli Stargel, who wrote the law, agreed.

Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, said she wanted elected school boards, and not the Florida High School Athletic Association, to make eligibility decisions. But her goal wasn't to have districts create their own guidelines for eligibility.

Rather, she said she wanted children to be able to participate in everything a school offers, from sports to music or drama, as long as the district approves their transfers and the families aren't involved in recruiting and don't lie to the district.

"If they determine you can go to that school, then you can do everything at that school," Stargel said. "That was my intent. That's not how it's played out."

Alfonso said he had not dug into the details of the complaint. He expected the district to defend its practices, put into effect this fall to prevent students from switching schools for athletics.

State law makes clear that transfers take place "pursuant to the district school board policies," Alfonso said. He added that FHSAA bylaws let districts adopt policies stricter than state laws.

Hobson, by contrast, argued that districts and the FHSAA may not go beyond the law.

"It's an interesting legal question I'm going to have to do some chewing on," Alfonso said.

He noted that part of the issue in the Mazza case centered on specifics. The vast majority of appeals to Pasco's athletic transfer policy have been granted after meeting criteria, such as a family moving into the school zone.

Hobson said the bullying, not sports, led to Mazza's transfer request. And once the transfer was granted, he said, the question of Mazza's playing soccer for Sunlake should have been easy.

"There is an argument to be made that this panel cannot exist, or, if it does exist, it cannot turn its back on Florida statute," Hobson said. "That's what we're asking the court to determine. Who holds the trump card?"

Hobson has asked for a quick court hearing, as soccer season is already under way. He and Alfonso are looking for a way to get the case before a judge by the end of the week.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com.

Pasco family sues school district over athletic transfer policy 11/04/13 [Last modified: Monday, November 4, 2013 10:07pm]
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