TAMPA — In an order that could cast the Hillsborough County school district's athletic transfer policy in doubt, a judge ruled Friday that Kayla Jo and Justine Fernandez can play softball for their new high school.
In allowing the girls to play this season for Jefferson High School, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Bernard Silver wrote that the district should not be allowed to have a policy that takes away rights students enjoy under state law.
The senior and sophomore were stopped from playing after they transferred this school year from Blake High School. The district policy, enacted after an eligibility scandal at Armwood High, calls for students to sit out a year of sports if they switch schools after their freshman year.
A district committee can make exceptions under a specific set of circumstances. But the sisters did not qualify and the School Board, which hears appeals, turned them down.
They sued in January.
The temporary injunction issued Friday does not resolve the lawsuit. But Silver granted it because softball season has begun, so the girls would miss a season if they had to wait for the case to conclude. He was especially concerned about Kayla, the senior.
"The girls are thrilled," said their attorney, Peter Hobson.
This is the second such lawsuit Hobson has filed in Hillsborough. The district settled the first one by allowing a Sickles football player to play, but did not disavow the policy. Another case in Pasco County is on appeal.
The School Board, meanwhile, is revamping the policy it adopted in 2012, to give the committee more leeway to consider situations such as family hardship.
Hobson, however, is seeking to strike down the entire policy.
He was encouraged by wording in Silver's ruling, which included this sentence: "There is a public interest in having state statutes applied accurately and enforced in an even-handed manner throughout the state."
Silver also took issue with the way the district distinguishes between eligibility policies, which are based on issues such as grades and conduct, and participation. In essence, he wrote, if an athlete cannot participate, the different terms amount to "a distinction without a difference."
The Fernandez sisters are among a larger group of student athletes who left Blake for a variety of reasons. Kayla lives with her grandmother near Jefferson and helps care for her, the family said. Justine, who lives closer to Hillsborough High, left Blake because she was dissatisfied with its urban teaching magnet program. She entered Jefferson under the school choice program.