Judge Strikes Down HS Player's Appeal

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The Buffalo News (New York)


Juston Johnson's quest to play basketball with West Seneca West this season appears to be finished.

State Supreme Court Justice Dennis Ward denied Johnson's quest for an injunction that would allow him to play, and the Article 78 petition filed in court to appeal a Section VI decision that Johnson has used all of his eligibility in the sport has been dismissed.

The judge issued his ruling Monday afternoon, four days after all parties involved appeared in his courtroom for hearing in which the Johnsons were not granted a stay that would have allowed Juston to play while awaiting a decision on his eligibility extension appeal.

The Johnsons could appeal the State Supreme Court ruling, but the timing makes that unlikely with only eight weeks left in the regular season.

Section VI ruled prior to the season that the 2017-18 All-Western New York first-team selection was ineligible for his senior season because his six-year window for playing basketball had expired.

Ward determined the decision was "not arbitrary or capricious or an abuse of discretion under the facts presented to them."

"The window is time limited to 'consecutive years, beginning with the first year the student participates,' " he wrote. "Sitting out a year or repeating a grade does not extend the window."

Ryan Carney, the Johnsons' attorney, declined to comment on the specifics of the ruling. "I'm disappointed for Juston and the family," he said. "He's a great kid, a great student, a great teammate. For him to have to go through this is the most difficult part about this process."

Juston Johnson declined comment through his father, Demeris. The elder Johnson told The News: "It's obviously disappointing. It's hard to even talk about."

Although the West Seneca School District was listed as a respondent in court documents, district superintendent Matt Bystrak said: "We wouldn't have appealed if we didn't want Juston Johnson to play, but we will be respectful of the judge's decision."

Section VI Executive Director Timm Slade issued a statement to The News when asked about the decision. The statement read: "On behalf of Section VI, we do not have the ability to set aside rules and regulations set forth by New York State Public High School Athletic Association and the Commissioner of Education in the State of New York. Unfortunately, these types of situations occur and we must follow the process fairly as we oversee 96 high schools within Section VI. Out of respect for our member schools and their student-athletes, it is not our practice to make public comments."

In court documents and interviews with the News, Johnson and his family say that a broken arm he suffered playing pickup football before the start of his eighth-grade year prevented him from attending school and from being able to take a required fitness test.

The test is used to determine whether seventh- and eighth-graders are physically strong enough to handle playing junior varsity or varsity sports prior to entering high school.

Johnson played junior varsity basketball as a seventh-grader. The family also contends the broken arm led to the decision to home school Johnson that academic year (2013-14), which meant he wouldn't have been able to participate in sports or extra-curricular events in the school district.

Section VI and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association argue that Johnson had the cast removed in October of that year and had the splint removed four weeks after that, before the basketball season started, and Johnson could have attended West Seneca with the necessary academic accommodations while the injury healed.

In his ruling, Ward cited a one-page medical report. "The report does not state that the student was unable to attend public school during 2013-14. The report does not in any way suggest that the student's fractured arm caused him to repeat eighth grade. The report does not state that the student would have been unable to play sports that entire year due to injury."

Later, the judgment says, "The record is totally devoid of proof that the injury caused him to repeat eighth grade. It was agreed by all involved that the extra year of high school was caused by deficiencies in the year of home schooling. There was nothing to connect the broken arm to those deficiencies. ... There is no proof in the record, therefore, that the arm fracture causes Mr. Johnson to be held back a grade."

Since Johnson played junior varsity basketball as a seventh-grader, the section considers that the start of the six-year window he had to compete in athletics.

When Johnson went to enroll for ninth grade in August 2014, the Johnsons say the school registrar indicated he didn't have the proper paperwork to fulfill academic requirements. The family decided it would be best for Juston to retake eighth grade in order to complete his core courses.

"Had Mr. Johnson not been required to repeat eighth grade due to the insufficiency of the home-schooling, Mr. Johnson would have been a senior during the 2017-18 season," Ward wrote. "Presumably, he would have been able to graduate in June 2018 and would have been recruited by college teams and likely would have been playing for one of them this year."

Johnson played a big role in West Seneca West's run to the Section VI Class A championship last year. The Indians went 24-1 with their lone loss coming in the state quarterfinals as Johnson averaged 24.8 points, 8.0 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 3.4 steals per game.

Prep school could be an option for Johnson, but most prep school programs have started their seasons.

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December 18, 2018


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