Education Law Insights

Illinois Athletics Association Declares Sudanese Mooseheart Students Eligible for Basketball

Posted by Jackie Wernz on December 11, 2012

The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) board of directors issued a ruling on December 10 in a high-profile case involving four Illinois student athletes. The students, who are Sudanese, were brought to the United States by A-HOPE, an Indiana-based non-profit foundation that aims to help student athletes from Africa obtain educations in the United States. Although the IHSA Board will allow the students to participate in athletics, it also ruled that any student who is referred to an Illinois school by an organization that aims to place student-athletes in an educational setting is presumptively ineligible for athletics. That opinion has implications for schools across Illinois. Accordingly, when student athletes are represented by someone other than their guardian, schools need to ask questions. No matter how noble an organization’s name, schools need to be vigilant against those who would take advantage of children or potentially face eligibility challenges for their students and their programs.

The ruling addresses the eligibility of four young men from Sudan. The students reportedly came to Mooseheart, a suburban Chicago residential school for at-need children, 18 months ago to fulfill dreams of obtaining a United States education to use back home in Sudan. The student visas that allow the students to study here were obtained with the help of A-HOPE, which stands for African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education. A-HOPE has drawn scrutiny from the sports media and the NCAA in the past two years, most notably standing at the center of the nine-game suspension of Indiana Hoosiers basketball players Hanner Mosquera-Parea and Peter Jurkin. Mosquera-Parea and Jurkin reportedly lived with A-HOPE’s founder, Mark Adams, who was also their AAU coach and assumed legal guardian, during high school.

The four students at issue in the IHSA Board’s ruling—Mangisto Deng, Makur Puou, Akim Nyang, and Wal Khat—drew headlines for their athletic performances at Mooseheart. Deng, Puou and Nyang helped Mooseheart win victories on the basketball court, although Mooseheart was by no means a powerhouse even with the 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, and 7-foot tall players. Khat was the first Mooseheart cross country medalist in the school’s history.

In its December 10 ruling, the IHSA Board, which is made of up 10 high school principals from around the state, found that “[t]he students were taken advantage of by A-Hope Foundation and people related to that organization.” Nonetheless, the Board deemed the students eligible to participate in interscholastic athletics. The Board noted that the students had already served a 365-day period of ineligibility.

The Board then stated: “henceforth any school accepting referrals of students from A-Hope Foundation or any other organization having as its purpose the placement of student-athletes in educational settings, shall be presumptively ineligible.” Moreover, the Board placed Mooseheart on immediate probation, rendering it ineligible to participate in the 2013 IHSA Basketball State Series, pending Mooseheart’s completion of the following to IHSA Executive Director’s satisfaction: (1) review and refinement of the admissions process to assure compliance with IHSA By-laws and Procedures; (2) training and education program for all Mooseheart coaches and administrators to assure compliance with IHSA By-laws, with particular focus on the unique structure of Mooseheart within the IHSA; and (3) submission of a Compliance Plan. IHSA said the school should be able to complete the tasks in time to compete in the 2013 end-of-year state basketball series, which starts in late February.

According to the Mooseheart website, in 2011 the IHSA Board had previously determined that the Sudanese students were eligible for athletics. In November, 2012, however, IHSA Executive Director Mary Hickman notified Mooseheart that the four students were permanently ineligible because they had been “recruited” to compete in athletics at Mooseheart. Mooseheart reportedly said that the IHSA reached this decision after waging “secret investigation at the urging of a rival high school.” Mooseheart then sought and obtained a temporary restraining order that allowed the students to continue participating in athletics until the December 10 ruling.

Update: Texas Cheerleaders’ Religious Football Banners

Posted by Jackie Wernz on October 25, 2012

In follow up to my previous blog entry, Texas School Bans Cheerleaders’ Religious Football Banners: The Right Choice?, the Texas state court issued its ruling last week. The court ruled that the Kountze cheerleaders could continue to display religious-themed banners at football games. The court agreed with the cheerleaders, their parents, and the Texas Attorney General that the speech was individual speech by the students that could not be stifled by the school. As you may recall, that is not the conclusion I reached in my previous blog post. And I’m not the only source that thinks the ruling is legally questionable. This story is far from over, as the school district may appeal the trial court’s decision to a higher court and, even if it does not, a trial will be held in June on as to whether the school district will be permanently enjoined from prohibiting the banners. For that reason, those who have not read the prior post may still find my legal analysis interesting for learning more about the legal issues underlying this case. Read the post here.

Texas School Bans Cheerleaders’ Religious Football Banners: The Right Choice?

Posted by Jackie Wernz on October 12, 2012

Next week a Texas state court will address a lawsuit filed by Kountze High School cheerleaders on some of the hottest issues in Texas: religion, schools, and football. The cheerleaders allege that their school superintendent prohibited them from writing religious messages on banners at football games, in violation of the First Amendment. The case wades into the murky legal waters regarding student-initiated prayer at school events. Was the school district’s decision the right choice? Here is this school lawyer’s take.

The Facts

The Kountze High School cheerleaders, dressed in uniform, hold 30’ x 10’ banners for their football team to run through at the beginning of football games. Cheerleaders use such banners across the country, typically with sayings like “Beat the Bulldogs” or “Trounce the Tigers,” and the cheerleaders are typically allowed to choose what is on the banners. But these Texas cheerleaders chose sayings from the Bible for their signs. An example of the language used is: “But thanks be to God, which gives us Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 15:57.”

Based on a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FRFF), which advocates for the separation of church and state, the school district superintendent prohibited the cheerleaders from unfurling further religious banners. The story since has gone viral, with recent coverage by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journalthe Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Last week, a Texas state court judge refused to grant the cheerleaders a temporary injunction, but reportedly did agree to extend a temporary restraining order until the parties could meet in court to address the cheerleaders’ request for a permanent injunction. The parties will face off in court next week.

Tenuous Confidence

Both sides appear quite confident in their legal arguments, but there is no court case that directly addresses the issue before the Texas court. In its written response to the lawsuit, the school district relied on a 2000 United States Supreme Court case, Santa Fe v. Doe, in which the Court struck down a school district policy allowing student-led prayer over a loud speaker before football games. The FRFF also relied on that decision in a brief in support of the school district. (more…)