Florida lawmakers took a step Friday toward preventing teens convicted of the “worst of the worst” crimes from participating in high school sports.
The bill (HB 545) would instruct the Florida High School Athletic Association to write bylaws banning students who have been sentenced as adults for homicide, sexual assault or lewd and lascivious offenses from taking part in its athletic competitions. It stems from a Pinellas County family’s complaint that the boy convicted of killing their daughter in a 2020 boat crash was allowed to play on the Osceola Fundamental High School lacrosse team.
Shelly Page, the mother of Rachel Herring, approached the Pinellas County School Board about her concerns in February 2023. She told the board she was “infuriated” that the boy, a classmate, could be a part of the team. He had been placed on probation with her support after a conviction on felony vessel homicide.
Page learned that the eligibility decision was left up to individual schools, and asked the school board to set a strict districtwide policy. Board member Stephanie Meyer brought the subject to her colleagues at a workshop one week later, but gained no traction for writing a rule to consistently prevent felons from being on teams.
Page turned to local lawmakers, who filed legislation to accomplish what the school board did not pursue. Bill sponsor state Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, told the House Education Quality Subcommittee on Friday that students who have committed crimes that violate society’s accepted norms must face consequences.
“Anyone can be redeemed, theoretically,” said Jacques, a former prosecutor. “What this does is add responsibility.”
He noted that students are prevented from playing sports if they can’t keep a C grade point average.
“If you’re responsible for taking someone’s life, I don’t think you should play, either,” Jacques said.
The question sparked intense debate among the committee members during a discussion that lasted more than an hour.
Several members argued that the measure would place an undue burden on children whom the courts already had punished, but did not see fit to assign the heaviest penalties. They noted that the bill would apply to teens sentenced as youthful offenders and not formally convicted.
“What we are saying if we pass this on to the next committee is, we don’t care about hope,” said Rep. Christopher Benjamin, D-Miami Gardens.
If the bill focused solely on those who have been convicted of these crimes, Benjamin said, he would not object. But it goes further, ignoring the concept of turning a child’s life around, he added.
“I know the effect it will have on kids who look like me, who come from places like where I came from, and who do stupid stuff,” Benjamin said.
Rep. Alina Garcia, R-Miami, also opposed the bill, suggesting it would castigate offenders beyond what the courts have deemed appropriate.
“Bills like this make me nervous,” added Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville. “Rehabilitation is important. My son was on his way to prison. … Now he has a Super Bowl ring. … This rule would make me feel like I don’t have a chance.”
Backers of the proposal had equally strong views.
Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, said that he has seen schools do all they can to keep good athletes on the field regardless of their criminal actions. He said it happened when two boys accused of shooting someone were allowed to stay on his own high school football team.
“I think this fixes that,” Giallombardo said. “I don’t think they should have played.”
He suggested the bill would make kids think twice before they act. Rep. Jennifer Canaday, R-Lakeland, said as a teacher she has seen the strength of deterrence in shaping children.
“Natural consequences are in fact a critical part in the development of impulse control,” Canaday said.
Rep. Danny Alvarez, R-Riverview, said he saw the truth in both sets of arguments. Sports are important and redeeming, he said, but also a privilege.
The thing that drove his support of the bill was the fact that kids can be barred from sports for much less, including poor grades and school misbehavior.
“You would be really naive to say sports have not saved some people’s lives,” he said. “But what we’re hoping is that … the threat of losing sports if you do this act is enough. Because clearly the potential of life in prison wasn’t.”
The committee advanced the bill 13-5 to the Criminal Justice Subcommittee. An identical Senate companion (SB 530) by Sen. Nick DeCeglie, R-St. Petersburg, has yet to be heard.
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