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Bishop England, Oceanside Collegiate sue SC High School League over rule changes

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Bishop England High School and Oceanside Collegiate Academy are among a group of private and charter schools suing the S.C. High School League over recent rules changes passed by the league.

A release from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, also a plaintiff in the suit, said the schools are suing "over recent amendments that penalize their student-athletes and restrict parents from fully exercising their legally protected rights to school choice."

The four private schools suing the SCHSL are Bishop England, Christ Church Episcopal and St. Joseph's Catholic School in Greenville, and Southside Christian School in Simpsonville.

Other plaintiffs include eight public charter schools and the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina. The eight charter schools include Oceanside Collegiate of Mount Pleasant and Gray Collegiate in Columbia. The suit was filed in Greenville County.

The SCHSL has not responded to a request for comment. 

At issue in the lawsuit are amendments passed by the SCHSL's legislative assembly in March addressing the athletic eligibility of incoming students at private schools (such as Bishop England) and public charter schools (such as Oceanside Collegiate). Of the League’s 206 member high schools, 21 are public charter schools and four are private schools.

Bishop England principal Patrick Finnernan accused the High School League of "blatant discrimination against our students."

"These amendments will hurt student-athletes first and foremost," he said. "The South Carolina High School League oversees many games in South Carolina, but it should not be permitted to play games with the lives of South Carolina students and families."

Oceanside Collegiate principal Brenda Corley called the new rules "an attack on school choice by the (High School League)."

"I hope that this legal measure will also help our state legislators look into and investigate the way the HSL is managing athletics in (South Carolina)," she said. "I hope they take a look at their outdated bylaws and rules and the voting process by which the membership amends and creates rules for athletic participation."

The new amendments “have impaired the right and freedom of students who enroll at plaintiff schools after the beginning of seventh grade to establish immediate eligibility to participate in interscholastic athletics at plaintiff schools, and thus discriminate improperly against the plaintiff schools," the suit claims.

A statement from the Diocese of Charleston cites an April 21 opinion from the state attorney general "agreeing that the new SCHSL amendments likely violate numerous state laws."

That opinion said, “While these amendments appear to apply equally to all schools, its impact is necessarily greater on students who transfer from public schools to charter schools and private schools than those that transfer within a public school district. Therefore, a court may well find that these amendments violate the Equal Access to Interscholastic Activities Act.”

The suit also has the attention of state legislators.

“Yet again, the League has placed itself above the law,” said state senator Larry Grooms of Berkeley County. “This is discrimination – on so many fronts – against these students and their parents who have the right to choose an educational opportunity they feel is best for their children.

"Every year of growth and development has an impact on a student’s ability to perform athletically, and there is no reason the SCHSL should cheat students of this opportunity.”

Under the new rules, most students who transfer from "traditional" boundary schools to non-traditional charter and private schools would have to sit out a year before they would be eligible to play for any athletic team.

"The net effect of the (new amendments) makes many students who might choose to enroll in a plaintiff school after the beginning of the seventh grade ineligible to participate in varsity or junior varsity interscholastic athletics at plaintiff schools for a period of one year," the lawsuit says.

At the legislative assembly in March, Rock Hill High School principal Ozzie Ahl introduced the transfer amendments that were approved by the league's athletic directors.

“We wanted to even the playing field," Rock Hill athletic director Bill Warren said at the time. “It makes all schools, public, public-charter and private schools play under the same rules. They can draw students from the same attendance zones that are established by where their building sits. We felt like these changes will help balance the competitive advantage that some of the charter schools and private schools have had in the past.”

Three years ago, the High School League passed a "ninth-grade entry rule" that allowed students to transfer into any high school in the state by the ninth grade and be immediately eligible athletically — even if the student lived outside that school’s attendance zone. For example, a student in North Charleston High School’s attendance zone could play for West Ashley that same year if the student transferred in by the ninth grade.

Under the new rules, that same student would have to sit out a full calendar year before being eligible to participate in any sports program, even junior varsity teams.

“The so-called ninth-grade entry rule has only been in place three years,” SCHSL commissioner Jerome Singleton said in March. “As long as a student enrolled by the ninth grade, they were eligible to play immediately. Prior to that, you’d have to sit out a year if you transferred. What they voted on (Wednesday) just goes back to the original rule. That’s all that happened. I don’t think this will affect as many people as some think it will, I just think it puts everyone on the same playing field.”

Another rule the assembly approved requires students who transfer from public schools to a charter or private school within the same district to sit out a year athletically. In the past, students from Oceanside and Wando, because they were in the same attendance zone and were under the same superintendent, could transfer without penalty.

That new rule passed by a 168-45 margin.

Other schools joining the suit are Legion Collegiate, Brashier Middle College, Greenville Technical Charter High School, Greer Middle College, Fox Creek High School and Palmetto Scholars Academy.

The suit asks the court for a temporary injunction against the SCHSL to cease enforcement of the new rules and also to deem the new rules unlawful.

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC

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