By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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By Jessica Lussenhop
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By Danielle Marie Mackey
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St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Diana Bourisaw says she will soon issue a directive on athletic eligibility to the district's high school administrators. The memorandum will order secondary school principals and athletic directors to pore over their varsity rosters and verify that every team member meets state residency, citizenship and academic requirements for eligibility.
"I believe they'll do an excellent job checking into that," Bourisaw says. "If [the students] are not eligible, whether it's because of grade-point average or residency, they will not be allowed to participate."
Additionally, principals are to be reminded of enrollment policies for neighborhood schools. According to Chapter 167 of Missouri's Safe Schools Act, families registering a child for school must show proof of his or her residency in the school district. The statute states that anyone who knowingly submits false information is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.
Bourisaw's directive was prompted by a November 3 e-mail from St. Louis Board of Education President Veronica O'Brien, who sent the message two days after the Riverfront Times published "Basketball by the Book," an investigation of Vashon High School's apparent violations of state rules regarding eligibility. O'Brien suggested that Bourisaw launch a district-wide probe centered on athletes' residency.
"Considering the ongoing allegations that surround the residency requirements at Vashon, I think it would be appropriate for your office to launch an investigation," O'Brien wrote in the e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by the RFT and can be viewed at www.riverfronttimes.com/blog. "Keep in mind it may be necessary to look at other schools."
O'Brien also recommended that Bourisaw's staff revisit a financial audit conducted at Vashon last year by St. Louis accounting firm Brown Smith Wallace. The audit left a number of questions related to athletic expenditures unanswered.
"We're looking to see if that is appropriate," Bourisaw says of the revisit.
O'Brien declined to elaborate on the requests she made to the district. "All the schools need to play by the rules," she says simply.
School board member Flint Fowler is supportive of O'Brien's request and favors all efforts to ensure that schools comply with guidelines set by the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA), a nonprofit organization that serves as the governing body of high school athletics.
"If there's a thought that the rules are being violated, I'd expect the district to take a look at it, just like I would if there was some fraud related to grades or teachers doing things against policy," Fowler says. "If we knew a coach recruited a student from outside the district and had falsified documents so it appeared they were within the rules of the state activities association, then suspension or termination would need to take place."
Mary Armstrong, president of St. Louis Teachers and School-Related Personnel Union, American Federation of Teachers Local 420, thinks every student's residency needs to be verified. "Why target just athletes?" she asks. "We have students [in our district] who are kicked out of county schools, who have relatives in the city, and all they have to do is bring us their [relatives'] proof of residence.
"You cannot attend a county school unless you're on an occupancy permit," Armstrong continues. "When you go to register, that's the first thing [the school] needs to see. The city has no such requirement."
School board member Ron Jackson believes the probe is unnecessary. "I just think that we've got a lot more important fish to fry, so to speak, and MSHSAA has a responsibility for investigating those kinds of things."
"Basketball by the Book" was published following a three-month investigation of Wolverines rosters, MSHSAA files, public records and data obtained from the St. Louis Public Schools. It also included interviews with state and school officials, and reports from visits to the addresses that Vashon basketball players reported to the school district as their residences.
The RFT story revealed that former coach Floyd Irons' team apparently fielded an ineligible player every season since 1998, an era in which Vashon netted five state championship titles. Yet the discrepancies went unchecked by the district and by MSHSAA.
Two days after the story appeared, MSHSAA issued a written statement to Kevin Slaten, the local sports-media provocateur and host of the KFNS (590 AM) afternoon show The Bottom Line.
"Any program with a history of success ultimately faces greater public scrutiny," MSHSAA executive director Kerwin Urhahn wrote to Slaten. "The recent coaching and administrative transitions at Vashon have emboldened some to draw their own conclusions and publish innuendos and rumors as facts about school personnel and even students.
"Vashon High School, like all MSHSAA member schools, has the obligation to enforce the eligibility standards put in place by the schools themselves and report any violations of those standards. Likewise, this organization relies heavily on the integrity of its members to report violations when they occur and to report suspected violations at other schools. No complaint has been filed against Vashon since 2002, and it is currently in good standing with the MSHSAA."
School board member Jackson questions whether MSHSAA has the resources to investigate residency. "Look at the Malik White situation," says Jackson, referring to a former Wolverine who listed the address of the St. Louis Paper & Box Company as his residence in 2001-2002. On August 21, 2002, White was murdered a few blocks from his parents' home in Jennings.
Says Jackson: "That [violation] was pretty blatant."
A March 3, 2004, St. Louis Post-Dispatch article reported that athletic directors in the Suburban North Conference filed a complaint concerning White with MSHSAA. However, the athletic directors withdrew the complaint after being accused of racism in a St. Louis American editorial.
MSHSAA has no record of the original complaint. Officials say they never investigated White's residency. Terry Funderburk, who heads the Suburban North Conference, could not be reached for comment for this article.
As for the discrepancies revealed by the RFT, Rick Kindhart, an assistant MSHSAA executive director, says the association is not taking any action at least not yet. "No one here has said this is a dead issue, but we are certainly not going to hang a member school out to dry publicly without having all the information," Kindhart explains. "Ultimately, if a school administrator is aware of violations, it is his or her obligation as a member to step up."