Randolph County's superintendent of schools told concerned parents at Wimer Stadium Thursday this week's ineligibility ruling that stripped Elkins High School of its football victories will soon be challenged in court.
"Maybe tomorrow or early next week there will be a temporary restraining order and temporary injunction filed," Dr. James Phares said at a special question-and-answer session on the field's bleachers.
The West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission ruled Wednesday that a student on the team is ineligible to play. Officials said the investigation was prompted by a complaint submitted from a neighboring county.
Dr. James Phares speaks with parents about the WVSSAC decision to take away EHS wins
The ruling takes the EHS team from a 7-2 record to an 0-9 slate on the season. The student currently is athletically ineligible for the remainder of the school year.
At Thursday evening's public meeting, Phares was asked by parents what steps could be taken to overturn the ruling. Phares said the school system cannot sue the WVSSAC because it is a member of the commission. However, he noted the student's family has retained a local attorney, Lori Gray.
Phares said if the injunction is filed in Randolph County, Circuit Court Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong will have to recuse herself from the injunction hearing because members of her staff have children on the football team. A judge will be appointed and a hearing date will be set, he said.
The Inter-Mountain photo by Casey Houser
Randolph County Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Phares addresses concerned parents and Elkins High School football players about a controversial ruling Thursday at Wimer Stadium. Video from the meeting is online at www.TheInterMountain.com.
Phares said if the injunction is granted, it will reinstate the player until an eligibility hearing, which would have to be held within 10 days. If the student were to be found eligible in such a hearing, EHS's wins could be reinstated, he said.
However, if that happens, "there are going to be injunctions popping up all over the state" filed by teams affected in the rankings by EHS's forfeits, Phares said. "It will go straight to the (state) Supreme Court."
Phares noted the school system has other options, as well.
"I've had a conversation with our attorney and we may go straight to the state superintendent (of education) and ask for a waiver of the rule," Phares said, adding that the state board of education has the authority to issue a waiver. Phares noted, however, there is no precedent for that being done.
"I'm not optimistic, but I am not going to give up," he said.
The superintendent told parents he had received encouragement and offers of help from across the state.
"It is not one of those stories anyone wants to see," Phares told the crowd of about 80 people. "I've been on the phone all day with legislators, lawyers and many other people."
Phares noted earlier in the day there were two things he wouldn't talk about during the Wimer Stadium meeting.
"I will not give details about the student's identity, for legal reasons, and I am not going to talk about who wrote the complaint," Phares said.
Although school officials have not released the student's name, printed reports have identified him as senior L.J. Lawrence. The Inter-Mountain also has obtained outside verification that Lawrence is the player in question. Lawrence has rushed for 1,491 yards and 18 touchdowns this season.
On Wednesday, Gary Ray, the WVSSAC executive director, declined to name the person who submitted the complaint, saying only that it did not come from a school or a school official.
Phares said Thursday he now knows who submitted the complaint, and he finds it "odd" that Ray will not release the name. Phares said the message he takes from that decision is "the person who filed the complaint has more right to privacy than the student."
Contacted Thursday afternoon for a response, Ray told The Inter-Mountain, "I haven't released the student's name, either. I'm not sure at this point in time what purpose that would serve to put (the name of the person who submitted the complaint) out there."
The Inter-Mountain submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the WVSSAC Thursday requesting a copy of the complaint.
Phares said the WVSSAC ruling has received "mixed reviews" around the state.
"There are a lot of people throughout the state that are horrified by this decision," Phares said Thursday afternoon.
During Thursday evening's meeting, Phares said both state and federal laws support the school system's contention that the 18-year-old student should be considered eligible.
"Because the guardian of the student was a lifelong resident of Randolph County; because of his academic standing, transcripts and residency; and because of the requirements of the McKinny-Vento Act of 2002 and because of the West Virginia State BOE policy governing opportunity for access to all programs curricular and extracurricular, the individual (should have been) certified as eligible," Phares said.
"This young man in question could no longer reside with his mother or his father," Phares told the crowd. "He met the homeless requirement. The parents did sign over all custodial and guardianship to the grandmother,"
Phares explained the federal McKinney-Vento Act states each educational agency shall ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth have equal access to the same free, appropriate public education as provided to other students. The full text of the act is available online at center.serve.org/nche/m-v.php.
Phares said state board policy 4200 states that no student is to be denied participation in a program on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, handicapping condition, age or national origin.
The policy states all students must be granted equal access to extracurricular activities.
The WVSSAC declared the student ineligible by its own set of rules, Phares said. The player in question was found to be in violation of rule No. 7 which states: "Any student residing with a guardian/custodian may not compete for a school in any sport on the varsity level."
Phares said the list of WVSSAC rules is not openly available to the public, and he had to have one of the WVSSAC administrators get a copy of the rules for him.
"My point of contention is: how can this rule supersede state and federal law?" Phares asked.
Phares said the rule could have been appealed, but the student moved to Randolph County after the appeal period had closed in June.
"He did not come to us until Aug. 20," Phares said.
Phares said the WVSSAC laid blame on EHS Principal David Fincham for the error.
"I am not going to do that," Phares said. "He was acting in the best interest of the school."
Fincham, who stood nearby Phares in front of the crowd throughout the meeting, said toward the end of the event, "I love your kids and I'm sorry this happened."
A person in the crowd asked if there was any legal reason why the student was not living with his parents. Phares said the student made the decision to move to Elkins to pursue his education.
"He is an independent legal male," Phares said. "Neither parent had the wherewithall to take care of him. This is a child that searched for a way to graduate from school. Is he the victim in this? Probably. He came with the intention to graduate. He didn't come to play football or basketball."
Another person asked how the student was in violation of the WVSSAC rule when he was 18 years old before the season started. Phares said that issue will be reviewed if the situation goes to court.
One crowd member asked how the person who made the complaint knew about the situation.
"We don't know," Phares said. "Someone may have known and said he was living with his grandma."
Phares said he spoke with the schools superintendent of the county in which the complaint filer lives.
"It didn't come from the county staff, county office, school employee or coaches," Phares said. "It will become apparent during the court process."
Phares was asked how long the WVSSAC investigation took. He said approximately 30 minutes.
"It is like a kangaroo court," he said, "especially when they did not take into consideration the federal and state law. If we were 0-9 or 2-7 nothing would have been said."
Phares said parents, students and community members need to move forward. He urged the crowd not to take to social media or other outlets to demean others and degrade what the team accomplished throughout the season.
Phares said he has seen negative comments on social media sites and does not want EHS supporters to respond.
"Do not fall to their level," he said. "I'm asking that EHS stand up and be proud supporters of these students."
When asked why the students should even care about going to Lewis County to play on Nov. 2, Phares said the players will pick up the pieces and do their best.
"It is going to matter to your sons or daughters in the future," he said. "There are ups and downs and we have to teach them how to get back up."
Many in the crowd seemed to be in a somber mood Thursday, with more disappointment than anger expressed.
Some of the football team's players were on hand for the meeting. Coach Greg Hott sat in the crowd with the parents, and answered a question about player statistics.
, saying the forfeits would not affect any of the players' stats.
for the season.
As parents filtered into the stands at the start of the meeting a large sign on the Tiger Den, the EHS locker room, read, "EHS football team played and won! You are winners!" The sign featured the signatures of fans, students and parents.