Calls for change to sports eligibility home checks

High school administrators who want to find out whether a student athlete lives within school boundaries are free to walk into a child’s bedroom without parental permission or even a specific reason in Hillsborough County, something one board member says needs to change.

“We have to make sure our student athletes are protected, that the families understand what the process is supposed to look like if they have this kind of encounter,” explained Doretha Edgecomb, vice-chair of the school board. “If there are inconsistencies and there’s not clarity about how this should be done, we need to address it.” 

The call for a closer look at board policies comes after a FOX 13 investigation revealed that earlier this month, Plant High School administrators knocked on the door of a 17-year-old football player and asked him to show them to his room, but did not ask to speak to an adult before doing so.

Plant has no written procedures for such investigations, which has left the family wondering whether the school was treating students equally.

The family is black; the school is predominantly white.

“I asked my son, did they do this to any of the other teammates,” said mother Iris Collins, whose son is an honor roll student entering his senior year. “He said yes, they did it to one other that he was aware of, another black boy.”

She says the family submitted all the required documentation demonstrating their residency and the school has not given them a good reason for the surprise inspection.

Plant principal Rob Nelson would not talk about specific investigations, but defended the practice of checking some students’ listed addresses through surprise visits and inspections of homes and bedrooms. He says the school is at capacity and has forfeited a district title in the past after an FHSSA investigation determined a student athlete was ineligible.

Nelson denied administrators are targeting certain athletes due to their race or neighborhood. 

“I've been to Davis Island, Harbour Island, I've been north of Kennedy, south to Euclid. I've been to high-price houses and others that are rentals,” Nelson said. “I have a duty to provide to my community.”

The Florida High School Sports Association, which sets sports eligibility rules, has does not have policies guiding schools on how, or when, to conduct their own residency checks. 

However, when the FHSSA conducts its own investigations based on a tip, it will use trained investigators who are required to notify the school of the inquiry. The school, in turn, is required to notify the family of the investigation, according to the 2015-2016 FHSSA Handbook. Among other requirements for state investigations, the FHSSA must obtain an athlete’s parent or legal guardians written consent before they can search a student’s home or living area. 

The FHSSA refused to weigh in on how schools should do their own investigations. "Schools can do their own checks and it is no issue on our end,” said spokesperson Corey Sobers. 

Edgecomb said the board could take up the issue at a future meeting.

“I think this brings to our attention the need to protect all of our stakeholders: our students, the schools and families,” she added.