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Naples Daily News (Florida)


The St. John Neumann High School football team used an ineligible player during its undefeated regular season this past fall, according to an investigation by the Florida High School Athletic Association.

The FHSAA has fined the school $15,000. Neumann is appealing the decision because, athletic director Damon Jones said, school officials believe the player in question was eligible.

If Neumann loses its appeal next month, the Celtics will have to forfeit the six games in which the player participated. Neumann went 9-0 in 2017, the first undefeated regular season in program history.

According to the FHSAA report, Neumann used a player during the 2017 season that had been sent to an alternative school by Collier County Public Schools near the end of the 2016-17 school year. The player attended a CCPS high school last year and was sent to the alternative school rather than be expelled.

Under FHSAA bylaws, a student who is sent to an alternative school or expelled is athletically ineligible for two semesters, even if he or she switches schools.

The Celtics player participated in the first six games of the season before Jones was made aware of the allegation, which was reported to the FHSAA by an outside party in October. Neumann is fined $2,500 per game, resulting in a $15,000 fine.

St. John Neumann's principal, Sister Patricia Roche, did not reply to requests for comment. Instead, a spokeswoman from the Diocese of Venice, the chapter of the Catholic church to which Neumann belongs, emailed the Daily News.

"St. John Neumann Catholic High School, Inc., will appeal this decision as the FHSAA bylaw is not reflective of the situation pertaining to the student," Diocese director of communications Susan Laielli wrote. "Further details regarding this matter are held in confidence as student privacy is a top priority of St. John Neumann Catholic High School, Inc."

Jones said he believes the player was eligible because CCPS did not follow the state laws regarding expulsion and alternative placement of students. Jones said there are disparities between state laws, local school system rules and FHSAA bylaws on the subject.

Plus, Neumann never received notification from the school system that the player had been sent to an alternative school.

"We don't believe, with the way the rules are set and all the different circumstances, that he was ineligible," Jones said. "There is a disconnect with some of the verbiage the FHSAA uses, the way the Florida statutes are set up, and the communication between public schools and private schools."

In November, Neumann hired Wicker-Smith Attorneys at Law to look into the issue. The FHSAA report, dated March 8, said the Neumann firm's independent investigation concluded Neumann "should not have known" the player was ineligible based on the information it had.

Officials from Neumann must go to Gainesville in June to appeal the decision at FHSAA headquarters.

When a new student enrolls at St. John Neumann, the admissions department has parents sign release forms so the school can obtain the student's records from previous schools. Neumann then has to rely on the previous schools sending complete records, which Jones said the Celtics did not receive for the player in question.

With the state's recent changes to its school choice laws, students can attend any school in the state that will accept them (public or private) no matter where they live. Student are eligible for athletics upon transferring, as well, so long as they haven't started a sport at one school and continued it at another.

"Transfers are going to increase," Jones said. "There are issues with the way (FHSAA) bylaws are written, issues with records being shared among school districts. I want to make sure they get addressed.

"These types of things are going to continue to happen. Regardless of innocence or guilt, these things are going to happen."

In a separate FHSAA report also sent to Neumann on March 8, the school was fined $2,500 for a violation under the FHSAA's athletic recruitment policy.

Neumann held an open house for potential students on Oct. 29, which is allowed under FHSAA policy. A flyer for the event used the phrase "Home of the Undefeated Celtics Football Team." Referencing the football team and its performance on promotional materials is against FHSAA rules.

Jones self-reported the violation to the FHSAA after learning of the flyer.

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May 10, 2018


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