MIDVALE — Proposed changes to the high school transfer policy would make it even tougher for student athletes to switch schools and continue playing varsity sports.
The Utah High School Activities Association’s Executive Committee is considering two different proposals regarding the state’s athletic transfer rules. One is a much more restrictive option with only one exception, while the other is a clarification and refinement of current rules that more specifically defines what qualifies as a hardship (which allows transferring students to maintain athletic eligibility) and how it is proved.
The two proposals were presented in an executive session Friday, and then discussed by the Executive Committee, which is made up of member school principals.
“We’re trying to make it fair for everyone because it’s just so hard to determine what really is a hardship and what isn’t,” said Craig Hammer, chairman of the Utah High School Activities Association’s Executive Committee. “I think it’s a positive move forward.”
Because of Utah’s open enrollment law, students can attend any high school or play for any high school without penalty on first entry. But once a student establishes eligibility, which occurs when a student attends a school or tries out for a sports team, he or she would have to go through a transfer of eligibility process that could result in athletic eligibility being revoked.
The proposed rule change would make transferring students “automatically ineligible from the varsity level of UHSAA sanctioned sports for one year (365 days from date of enrollment at the new school).”
Additionally, the new rule states that students who prove a documented hardship “may only submit a transfer of eligibility request for varsity competition in sports they have not rostered during ninth through 12th grade. They will be eligible for subvarsity in sports in which they have rostered. No transfer of eligibility request form needs to be submitted for students to participate in subvarsity.”
The only exception that remains in place in the current proposal is a full family move, which must be proved through documents.
“It’s an attempt to make it clear,” said UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner, noting that both proposals come from a constitutional by-laws committee, which is constantly studying UHSAA rules and guidelines. “But it’s very restrictive.”
The rule clarification, an alternative to the strict rule change, is far less restrictive and simply seeks to refine and streamline the current process.
It gives examples of hardships, which include a death in the family that requires the student to change schools; or divorce that results in a student being required to change residences and schools.
Also, it says that hardship requests generally fall into three categories — harassment, intimidation and bullying; international baccalaureate participation; and medical issues. The rule interpretation changes give more specific guidelines and if parents know what’s required to prove a hardship, they can avoid an initial denial and subsequent hearing.
For example, in defining the exemption for a student’s enrollment in an IB program, it states that eligibility could be revoked if the student drops out of the program.
Part of what’s driving the changes is an effort to be more clear while addressing the growing number of transfer requests. For the 2015-16 school year, the UHSAA processed 2,025 transfer of eligibility applications. Of those, 997 were hardship waivers, while 667 were residence changes. The others were foreign or international student applications.
The number of transfers could continue to rise as families are opting to change schools more frequently for a variety of reasons.
“I see social mobility as rising, personally,” Van Wagoner said. “What we try to do is create a system that does not unduly burden the students moving from one school to another, but at the same time protects the nature of the competition that we sponsor. It’s a difficult balance; people are always unhappy.”
The state’s open enrollment law (enacted in the early ’90s) is fundamentally in conflict with one of the UHSAA’s guiding principles, which is that students should not change schools simply for athletic reasons. The assumption is that it will lead to recruiting and other rules violations as well as practices that adversely impact a student’s academic experience.
The two proposals will be presented to the UHSAA’s Board of Trustees next week, but neither will be voted on until August, and there is a different process depending on how the BOT decides to proceed. But the Executive Committee response is that some change is needed, whether it’s more clearly defined exemptions or a simpler, more restrictive rule.
“I think being more clear and more defined is always a good thing,” said Timpview principal Todd McKee. “If it’s really ambiguous and really wide open, you’re more likely to walk into issues.”
The process of appealing decisions by the UHSAA staff regarding transfers is a two-tiered hearing process. Decisions at those hearings are made by three or five members of the executive committee, and in the case of an appeal, by the Board of Trustees. The human factor creates some inconsistencies or variable that the principals who make up the executive committee are willing to live with because it treats each case, each child, with individual concern.
“I’ve always believed in trusting the process,” McKee said. “If you have a good process and you manage it well, you always have good outcomes.”
He admits they may never stop all of those who take advantage of loopholes.
‘I don’t know if we can control that,” he said, acknowledging that there are parents willing to move their children three, four and five times in one high school experience. “But the whole intent and purpose is to maintain some kind of fairness in the system. Parents are still going to do what they feel is best. If they move three times in a school year, that’s kind of on them. But I would tell them, ‘You’re going to pay a price one way or another. Maybe take a look at what it’s doing to your child’s academics. There are real consequences, real and unintended, for everything you do.’”