BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCIV) – Armed with a legal team, the Goose Creek High School football team presented their case to a judge on why they should be allowed back into the playoffs.
That case was heard by Judge Roger Young, who only a day earlier, had agreed to hear the case.
Goose Creek's case
In front of a packed courtroom, attorneys for the Goose Creek High School football team and the South Carolina High School League argued their cases.
Ken Harrell, one of Goose Creek's attorneys from the Joye Law Firm, started the proceeding by asking for a restraining order on Friday night's game between Bluffton and Conway. Harrell said the decision is important to everyone in the Goose Creek community.
Goose Creek beat Conway last week before being disqualified from playoff play by the SCHSL.
Harrell told the judge that it was the head basketball coach at Goose Creek, Blake Hall, who discovered the extra high school years from Woodmont High School in the Upstate. The student in question attended Woodmont during the 2008-2009 school year, Harrell said.
Harrell went on to explain that the student, who was referred to as John Doe during the proceeding, has learning disabilities and behavioral issues. According to Harrell, John Doe was at a group home for behavioral issues in Simpsonville. Doe was confined to his home – he was home-schooled, but the curriculum came from Woodmont – during that time, Harrell said.
John Doe is a non-diploma track student, meaning he has different requirements to stay in school and participate in sports, Harrell said. He went on to say that John Doe did meet those requirements under SCHSL rules.
In his argument, Harrell cited federal laws that protect disabled students and grant them access to sports. John Doe has a right to participate in the 2012-2013 school year, Harrell said.
According to Chris McCool, the federal law allows for disabled students to have equal access to school sports. The student did not have access to sports when he was confined to his home in Simpsonville in 2008, Harrell said.
McCool said the "time clock" starts running for eight semesters when a student first steps on to a high school campus, which was 2010 for John Doe when he enrolled at Berkeley High School. Because the student was in a group home in 2008, he never actually enrolled at Woodmont, McCool said.
According to the SCHSL constitution, students who are on track on a personal program are still eligible. The constitution also states the SCHSL commissioner cannot sit on the executive committee.
McCool argued that Jerome Singleton, the sitting SCHSL commissioner, was on the committee and heavily involved in the decision to disqualify Goose Creek. He went on to say that the appeal hearing on Wednesday night violated Freedom of Information Act.
However, the hearing was closed to the public at the school's request to protect the identity of the student.
Young challenged McCool, asking him what would stop the SCHSL from holding a public hearing and making the same ruling. He went on to ask what would stop similar incidents from happening in the future if he overturned the ruling on SCHSL technicalities.
"I just don't get to second guess their decision," Judge Young said.
Young went on to say he thought the stronger argument was that the SCHSL could have misinterpreted the eligibility of the student based on the body's constitution and the boy's time in a group home.
"Help me understand," he said.
The South Carolina High School League's case
Attorney Bob Warner for the SCHSL argued there would not be irreparable harm by upholding the disqualification, a point with which Goose Creek strongly disagrees.
Warner said the disqualification came after the student's history was brought to them by school officials as a self-reported violation of the rules. According to the SCHSL attorneys, it was first shown to the governing sports body that the student had repeated a grade and later added his freshman year transcript, showing the student was in his fifth year of high school.
Warner added that the group home John Doe was placed in was actually a sentence handed down by the state's Department of Juvenile Justice. He went on to say that John Doe was effectually an inmate, which would have made him ineligible to play. Warner continued, saying the education offered by juvenile justice is recognized by the state and both Berkeley and Goose Creek accepted the year on his transcripts.
Warner said the student forfeited his privilege to play football when he was sentenced to the group home.
Warner said the school could have instead petitioned to have a fifth year of eligibility extended to the student. The league blamed the student for not asking for a hardship ruling.
Warner added the school did not make the arguments Wednesday that they made in court on Friday. He said the school only argued that there was no competitive advantage to having John Doe on the team, which was an invalid argument.
"Really good teams who use players when they're winning by a lot don't get different rules," he said.
Warner went on to say that John Doe's disability does not negate the other qualifications to participate in sports. He said the student had equal opportunity to play sports.
"He had extra opportunity," Warner said.
But Young challenged Warner's argument, saying John Doe never stepped on the campus of Woodmont and never had a chance to step off it.
As Warner spoke, the spectators in the court room started vocalizing their disagreement with the attorney.
Young went on to ask where in the SCHSL rules does it state where a student's eligibility to play sports begins. Rogers wanted to know if the time John Doe spent in classes offered through a court-ordered group home qualified as time in a standard high school.
"There are two different ways to look at the same problem, so I'm just trying to flesh this out," Young said.
Warner told the judge that eligibility is not limited to the sport the student wants to play; it begins when the student enrolls in high school.
Warner closed, saying the decision of the SCHSL could be considered unfortunate, but that did not make it unfair.
Goose Creek's rebuttal
Harrell rebutted Warner's argument, saying the group home where John Doe was placed was for abused children. He added that the school tried to do the right thing by reporting to the SCHSL immediately.
Harrell said reporting the incident showed integrity, but that integrity was not rewarded by the SCHSL.
Harrell went on to say that federal law trumps the regulations of the SCHSL, pushing again the argument that John Doe's rights were violated.
In an attempt to show the positive impact the school and the team have had on John Doe, Harrell said the student was written up 13 times at Berkeley, but he has not been in trouble once at Goose Creek.
Judge Young's ruling
Young's ruling came down to the technicalities that Goose Creek used to dissect the SCHSL's ruling. He told the ruling body that if they were going to act in accordance to the regulations they set up, then they would have to operate under them, too. Young said the SCHSL also violated Freedom of Information law.
According to Young, the time John Doe spent at the group home in Simpsonville did not equate to enrollment because, under SCHSL guidelines, enrollment is recognized by being on the campus.
Since John Doe was ordered to stay within the confines of the group home, he was never truly enrolled in Woodmont High School. As a result, his eligibility as a student-athlete did not start until 2010.
As a result, he deemed Goose Creek's case ultimately superior and gave the team the opportunity to play Friday night.
However, he also put the ruling back in the hands of the SCHSL, telling them to reconvene by 5 p.m. Monday and make a proper and public ruling.
During the hearing, Young laid out for both sides the strongest argument for Goose Creek as they move forward in the appeal process, telling them to focus largely on the question of eligibility and how that is affected by John Doe's time in the group home.