TAMPA – A little more than a year after the Hillsborough County school district adopted a new policy making it more difficult for students who transfer to a new school to immediately play sports, a high-school senior last week filed a lawsuit over the rule.
In the suit, 18-year-old Justin Fragnito claimed that the school board wrongly deemed him ineligible to play football at Sickles High School. Fragnito's attorney, Peter Hobson, says the district policy contradicts state law by not allowing him to play.
In a new twist Tuesday, Hobson said the school district will grant Fragnito eligibility to play if he withdraws the lawsuit, a compromise reached earlier in the day during a closed executive session of the School Board.
“They're very appreciative, very thankful to the school board,” Hobson said, of Fragnito and his family.
For Fragnito to participate in the playoffs, which begin Friday, Hobson will need to notify the Florida High School Athletics Association that an agreement has been worked out with the school district. Also, the school board must officially approve the decision to let the student play, district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said. The board's next meeting isn't scheduled until Tuesday.
Fragnito transferred to Sickles from Jesuit High School in the spring semester of last school year. He had not participated in school sports at Jesuit since his freshman year.
He has been attending practices with the Sickles football team, according to the lawsuit, filed last week in Hillsborough County Circuit Court. Fragnito lives in the correct zone to attend Sickles.
The school district in fall 2012 enacted its new athletic transfer policy, which states any student who transfers to a high school other than their designated zoned school and who intends to participate in sports will be barred from athletics there for one calendar year.
Everyone who transfers to another high school, whether it be by moving or school choice, is ineligible to play sports unless cleared during an appeal by the Transferring Student-Athletes Participation Committee.
The policy was enacted the year after Armwood High School was stripped of its state football title and 26 victories dating back to 2010 and fined thousands of dollars, the result of a Florida High School Athletics Association ruling that parents of five football players falsified addresses to enroll at the school.
The district's policy is stricter than the rules set by the FHSAA, which state that students who transfer to a new school are eligible to play sports if they have been enrolled there since the beginning of the current school year.
The FHSAA says its rules are meant to be a baseline and that individual school districts can adopt stricter rules.
Even so, Hobson says Hillsborough's policy violates state law, which says students are eligible to play sports in the school they are enrolled in at the beginning of the school year.
On Tuesday, the school board decided to schedule a future workshop on district athletic policies.
Hobson also represents a Sunlake High School student, Michael Mazzo, in a similar lawsuit against the school board in neighboring Pasco County. Pasco's policy on transfer eligibility, enacted this year, mirrors the one in Hillsborough. In that case, Hobson and Mazzo are fighting for eligibility for the student to play soccer.
“We're of the opinion that when a student transfers from one high school to another and the school board approves that student to enroll in that school, he or she is eligible to participate in athletic events that year, the first day of school,” Hobson said. “The school board thinks that because FHSAA says if you want to be more strict, you can. You can't be more strict to deny someone a state right.”