TAMPA — Last school year, Hillsborough County schools officials deemed a freshman at Plant High School ineligible to play sports there.
According to Florida High School Athletics Association bylaws — rules the school district follows — the move was justified despite objections from the student’s parents and school board Chairwoman April Griffin.
Mike and Nicole Mezrah said they did not falsify information about where they lived. Rather, they were splitting their time between two homes. A school district investigation disputes that.
Either way, the Mezrahs skipped a step in making sure their daughter could play sports at Plant: According to FHSAA bylaws, a student-athlete may live in two homes only if a court decides it is necessary.
“If a court has mandated a student can have multiple residences, then it can happen,” said FHSAA public relations specialist Corey Sobers.
Other requirements include holding a minimum grade-point average of 2.0 on a 4.0 unweighted scale.
The Mezrahs own two homes. One is a duplex in South Tampa, near Himes Avenue and Bay to Bay Boulevard. The other is a farm on Palm River Road east of U.S. 41. Mike Mezrah, a pilot, also owns a sea plane base nearby.
The couple said they split their time between the duplex, in the Plant High zone, and the farm, where they keep animals.
They acknowledge they did not go to a court for approval, but they insist they’re not alone. They said other Plant families own multiple residences and were never reprimanded.
“I would guess that half of the athletes at Plant who play sports, their families have second homes,” Nicole Mezrah said. “I bet they have never been investigated or bothered at all.”
Plant Principal Robert Nelson could not be reached for comment on the allegations Thursday night.
Prompted by an anonymous tip, administrators concluded the Mezrah family was not living primarily in the South Tampa home after tracking the girl to and from school and searching utility records.
The decision in February to deny her eligibility was upheld by the FHSAA Sectional Appeals Committee.
The daughter, now a sophomore, was benched from participating in athletics. She ran cross country last fall and had just started playing on the tennis team at the beginning of the spring semester when the investigation was launched.
Then last month, county schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the Mezrahs that their oldest daughter, as well as a second daughter who is a freshman this year, would be allowed to attend Plant because they appeared to be living at a qualified residence. But Elia stood by the decision that they could not play sports until February, one year after the district launched its investigation, as required under FHSAA bylaws.
Still, the Mezrahs pulled their daughters from the school last Friday, saying they feel alienated. The girls are taking classes online.
Elia declined to comment Thursday.
Griffin said she takes issue with the time and effort expended by the district, tracking the daughter’s movements and checking household water and electric usage. Griffin raised her objections in an Aug. 5 letter to the FHSAA on district letterhead.
Roger Dearing, director of the FHSAA, said in an email Aug. 22 to the association’s attorney that Griffin’s letter was unusual for a school board chairwoman, but Griffin insisted she was just expressing her personal opinion.
“To me, it’s not about the letter,” Griffin said. “It’s about what this family has been through and the inconsistencies in the way this policy is interpreted for some families and not others, and the fact that staff time is investigating families when they have no training.”
Plant High’s athletics and academic programs make it an appealing destination for students. The school’s sports programs have a track record of success, including recent state championships in cross country and tennis.
Proof of residency is a requirement for athletes under the statewide FHSAA rules and under a new Hillsborough district policy designed to discourage students from transferring from one school to another for athletic purposes.
Sobers said the rules of the Gainesville-based FHSAA apply statewide at member schools, and individual school districts have the option of adopting stricter rules pertaining on athletic eligibility.