February 16, 2009

Hardship tranfers are a tough case to prove

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June Romine was wearing a neck brace, taking pain medication and coping with seizures spurred by surgery performed to replace several bones in her neck. And she was still driving her son, Austin, to school across town every day.

From the windows in her home, June could see El Toro (Lake Forest, Calif.) High. But Austin was going to Trabuco Hills (Mission Viejo) High, where his two older brothers went. Trabuco was a family tradition.

That is until June's doctors said she wasn't supposed to be driving because of her condition. Days before Austin was to begin his sophomore year, his family filed paperwork to transfer to El Toro.

Austin − now a rising catcher in the New York Yankees' farm system − was going to take his baseball skills elsewhere.

Or not.

The Romines say Kevin Biggs, then the vice principal at Trabuco, didn't want Austin to leave because he didn't want his school to lose a talented athlete. Biggs sent a letter to the California Interscholastic Federation − the governing body for high school sports in the state − saying Austin was transferring for athletic reasons, so he shouldn't be immediately eligible to play varsity sports at El Toro.

Biggs tells a different story. He said he was aware of June's neck problems, but the reason he sent the letter was because he'd heard about previous contact between the Romines and coaches at El Toro.

"We had good reason to think the switch was about athletics," said Biggs, now an assistant principal at Mission Viejo (Calif.) High.

The CIF originally ruled Austin ineligible to play varsity sports. Then, with the assistance of a lawyer, the Romines appealed the decision and Austin eventually was in the clear.

"The CIF only took us seriously once we had an attorney, we had a nice letterhead," June said. "The facts remained the same during the entire process. The doctors' notes were there the whole time."

Several families interviewed echoed similar sentiments about the CIF's transfer policies. The CIF has too much on its plate, so when students apply to transfer schools, they're dismissed out of hand. It's easier for the CIF to say no to students than to look at every case individually and decide whether there's a legitimate reason to switch, the families said.

Not so, said James Staunton, the commissioner of the Southern Section, the largest among 10 geographically separated divisions in California.

"We have probably close to 400,000 athletes in our section and about 3,000 overall transfers," Staunton said. "When you get down to the hardships, the number [365] last year, that's less than 1 percent of the kids. That's miniscule.

"I don't buy that we're overwhelmed. We're not jaundiced."

Staunton said he has four assistant commissioners who help him research students' hardships, which are defined as "unforeseeable, unavoidable or uncorrectable" events that could force someone to transfer.

Among the 365 hardship waivers applied for in the last academic year, Staunton said 52 percent were granted, and only 23 of the athletes turned down appealed the decision.

When asked about a particular hardship waiver appeal that was dismissed a month before an interview for this report, Staunton accurately recalled the details of the case.

That's impressive, considering modifications to CIF bylaws instituted in June 2007 liberalized transfer rules in the Southern Section. Before the changes, different sections had different rules regarding transfers. But the CIF wanted universal transfer-eligibility guidelines across the state.

The hot-button issues surrounded freshman and sophomore transfers. One new rule stipulates that students are allowed one free transfer during their freshman year − or up to the first day of their third consecutive semester of high school − while retaining unlimited eligibility so long as they're scholastically qualified, have no disciplinary issues and have in no way been recruited to another school.

That laxity led to a 45 percent increase in sophomore transfer rates in the Southern Section this September, the first month of the academic year.

If that rule was in place when Austin Romine was in high school, he would have been able to transfer without trouble.

Conversely, another new rule tightened transfer bylaws in several sections. Non-freshman transfers now are only granted full eligibility if their parents or guardians prove a valid change in residency, or if they can show they suffered a hardship as defined by the CIF.

The problem, several families said, is the CIF's interpretation of hardships is subjective.

"Their definition can mean just about anything," said Michael Madigan, a 25-year practicing lawyer who said he's represented nearly 100 athletes who tried appealing CIF decisions, including the Romines. "The word 'hardship,' I can tell you as a lawyer, is typically used to assist in drafting insurance policies.

"The rule needs to be clear, and in this instance, it's incredibly overbroad and ambiguous."

Indeed, the difficulty lies in determining an adequate definition. Families complain that it's too complicated to prove a hardship. The CIF says the same thing. For every athlete who's hurt by the imperfect system, there's another who's trying to take advantage of it.

"When people are told they have to wait a year [to become fully eligible], we start getting stories that we think are not that sincere," Staunton said. "I don't know how anyone could really set up totally objective criteria.

"But I'd challenge those lawyers to come up with a better definition."

Because there's no perfect solution, the CIF does what it can to teach all its employees how to accurately assess what a hardship is, Staunton said. There are approximately six to eight training sessions among CIF officials every year, and in turn, those officials tell school athletic directors how to help their students.

Students and their families are free to call the CIF with transfer-related questions, Staunton said, but they're encouraged to work with their schools and let them deal with the CIF.

That process, though, often leaves families feeling scorned by the organization from which they were expecting help. To alleviate that possible tension, the CIF now gives families outlines explaining why they were − or weren't − granted a waiver, Staunton said.

"We started doing that a couple years ago instead of just denying a request," Staunton said. "Now people aren't appealing as much because they know our thinking. Since we started giving out letters, we get fewer return calls."

Inge Holland received one of those letters a few months ago. Her son, Chasen, had attended Servite (Anaheim) High, a private school, for three years. But when her husband's company hit an unexpected downturn last summer, the family decided to move Chasen to a public school, La Mirada High, to save money on tuition.

The Hollands figured Chasen would be eligible to play varsity sports immediately, considering their money problems were both unforeseeable and unavoidable. So Inge filled out the transfer forms provided by the CIF and provided tax documents that showed the family's decreased income.

Chasen was turned down.

"The whole thing was just confusing," Inge said. "We didn't know what we needed to substantiate the transfer. It would have been nice to have someone to work with."

Inge said the letter she received from the CIF explaining its decision explained why Chasen was ruled ineligible, but didn't tell what the Hollands needed to prove their hardship. Inge said she originally had difficulty contacting anyone in the CIF offices.

Through mutual friends, the Hollands were introduced to Madigan, the lawyer. He helped them prove their case and get in touch with CIF officials. He gave them a sense of legitimacy.

With Madigan's help, the Hollands put together a packet that outlined their hardship. Along with the tax documents, they sent paperwork detailing their monthly income, a letter from La Mirada officials showing Chasen was academically eligible and a note from Servite's principal corroborating their case.

Chasen's now playing baseball at La Mirada.

"I don't think the CIF is out to get anyone, I just think they're busy with a lot of other things," Inge said. "When we did get in touch with Mr. Staunton, he wasn't hardnosed at all. He was good to work with.

"Instead of them explaining why kids can't play, I'd just like to see the rules emphasize ways they can."

Titus Graves would just like to see his son play varsity football, basketball and track at Crespi (Encino) High this year. As a sophomore receiver at Los Alamitos High in 2007, Brandon Graves was widely recognized as a top prospect in his class, catching 28 passes on a 7-3 team.

But during the past year, the Graves were hit with a pair of incidents they considered unforeseeable and unavoidable.

The mortgage company Titus previously worked for went south. The business was near Los Alamitos, so it had been convenient for Titus to drive his son to school and then go to work. The Graves live in Canoga Park, Calif., which can be an hour's drive away from Los Alamitos depending on traffic.


The CIF only took us seriously once we had an attorney, we had a nice letterhead. The facts remained the same during the entire process. The doctors' notes were there the whole time.
June Romine, injured mother of Austin Romine.

Also, Titus' mother, Margaret, started having kidney problems. Titus had to help her with dialysis treatments three times a day, and it was difficult to get Brandon to school at the same time. Margaret passed away in late July.

Titus sent the CIF a letter from his old company saying its office closed down, along with a copy of his mother's death certificate. But Brandon was denied a hardship waiver, and his subsequent appeal was turned down, too, so he's stuck playing on junior varsity until next year.

Brandon would be immediately eligible if he'd transferred to Chatsworth (Calif.) High, his local school, but Titus said the school was infested with gang members and he didn't want his son in that environment.

"They dogged us out," Titus said. "They just had it in their minds to turn us down. There was no consideration for our problems."

Titus claimed the CIF − Staunton in particular − is friendly with athletic officials at Los Alamitos and has something against Crespi.

According to Titus, Los Alamitos football coach John Barnes treated Brandon unfairly, and subsequently asked Staunton to not approve the transfer.

"I can't think of anything more ludicrous," said Staunton, before citing how he handled a previous situation when he could have been accused of favoritism. When he left his job as principal at Huntington Beach High nine years ago for the CIF, he let his co-workers handle transfer cases related to the school. "You always avoid the appearance of impropriety."

The relationship between Graves and Barnes soured last summer, Titus said, when Brandon realized he'd have trouble getting to football practices while attending summer school.

Brandon had failed a class during his sophomore year that he needed to make up, and to do that he would need to miss Los Alamitos' regularly scheduled 8-10 a.m. football practices.

There were another six or seven kids on the team who also needed summer school, Barnes said, and they were offered a special 6:30-7:30 a.m. practice.

Because of the distance between the Graves' home and Los Alamitos, Titus said it would have been too difficult to get Brandon to practice that early and then go to school.

"The way Barnes was running it, we pretty much felt like Brandon had to choose school or football," Titus said. "When we wanted to go to Crespi, Barnes told us he thought we were recruited. I said that wasn't true, and he just told me, 'I don't believe you.' "

As if running down a checklist, Barnes refuted nearly everything Titus said.

Barnes cited the students who attended his early practices as evidence that kids could do school and football concurrently. He said he didn't speak with Staunton at all the past year except "maybe hi and bye."

Barnes also said when he learned of Brandon's intent to transfer, he gave him a letter saying, "Brandon left our program in good standing."

In 30 years coaching at Los Alamitos, Barnes has seen just about every trend there is in high school sports. The recent influx of transfers and the abuse of the hardship waiver rule, he said, "changed the way everything works.

"Personally, I don't care where a kid goes, that's up to the CIF. But kids used to go to a school because that was their school, where they grew up. Now it's all about what program has done well lately. Too many kids say, 'Where can I go this year that'll be good for me?' "

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