The board votes to change high school rules for transfer and international students in Utah

MIDVALE – Significant changes to collegiate sports in Utah cleared another hurdle Wednesday afternoon.

The board that oversees college sports voted unanimously to change the way student-athletes move between schools. They also voted unanimously – with one abstention – to restrict the way student-athletes attending schools in Utah on F1 visas can participate in sanctioned sports.

F1 restrictions

The changes to visa rules mean schools will have to decide how to treat students using an F1 visa to attend and play sports. There are three options. Students attending high schools in Utah on an F1 visa are not eligible for varsity competition, otherwise schools may allow them to participate in varsity competition, but the team would not be eligible for postseason play.

The third option is that the school could choose to leave the club and play independently, meaning it would not be subject to the club's rules. Wasatch Academy decided to play an independent schedule with its boys basketball team and has had great success.

“It is not a ban … it is an anti-competitive measure carried out because there is a feeling that the current field has created an imperfect competitive balance,” said Mark Van Wagoner, attorney for the Utah High School Activities Association.

Van Wagoner said the association has received “numerous” complaints from parents, students and coaches about international student-athletes being placed at private schools in Utah. He said they investigated the matter and documented that two club organizations in other countries had posted announcements on social media sites that student-athletes had been “placed” into programs in Utah. He said three schools were listed as “partners” on one organization’s website.

“There is no question that there is a placement,” Van Wagoner said, “which of course would violate the recruiting rule. That is beyond question. So this part of the information is already known to us. And that's not what I'm currently investigating.”

He said he is studying what role Utah schools play in placing athletes.

“I'm trying to examine to what extent, if at all, a high school in Utah knew about this internship, knew about the schools that were sending them, treated these students differently, and didn't require them to meet all the otherwise established requirements.” “The standards “disrespected the school and/or intentionally failed to investigate,” Van Wagoner said. “These are the things I want to know.”

Why now?

While there was discussion about holding off on making changes until the investigation was complete, most wanted to address the problem as quickly – and as decisively – as possible.

“This doesn’t come from above,” Van Wagoner said of the proposal first drafted in March. The association has received “numerous” complaints from parents, students and coaches that international student-athletes are being placed in private schools in Utah for athletic purposes.

The board heard 45 minutes of comments from private school leaders, parents who hosted students and international students from Judge Memorial High, St. Joseph's and Layton Christian Academy. They opposed any change, but at least called for more time to think about solutions that might not involve so much collateral damage.

“While I oppose any changes to current UHHSA policy, I would just ask, No. 1, that no rule changes be made while the investigation is ongoing,” said Judge Memorial Director Patrick Lambert. “I think that’s an important part of it. If an investigation shows that there was misconduct, then we will take care of it.”

He made a number of other suggestions, including making international students subject to transfer rules and finding a way to provide more transparency about how those students end up in Utah schools.

“Please put these students first because so many came here, they followed the rules, they did everything right and they just want to participate in their school activities,” Lambert said. “And I just want to remind us how important our inclusivity is to us here in the state. We have been inclusive for so many years and please continue to put children first.”

The board discussed many options, including the possibility of “grandfathering” those currently attending schools in Utah on an F1 visa, but ultimately there was not enough support to mitigate the change.

“I say let’s make the hard decision,” said Todd Quarnberg, principal of Herriman High. “And it goes to the member schools. You can vote.”

Referring the matter to the schools was largely supported by the board because that is where the complaints came from.

“They make the final decision,” said Brent Strate, who represents the Utah State Board of Education. “If there isn’t a two-thirds majority, we’re back to square one.”

Transfer rule

The new transfer rule says students who have played a sport at a Utah high school in the last 12 months can transfer for any reason, but automatically for 30 days – or 50 percent of games – whichever is greater , are not eligible to play. If a student transfers a second time, they will be ineligible for an entire year.

The new rules force schools to make most of the decisions when students transfer, and they eliminate a massive loophole – the use of guardianship changes when transferring schools.

“Then the current guardianship system is a hole so big you could drive a truck through it,” Van Wagoner said. “No non-parental guardianship will be recognized for a student who has a living parent. So a student has a parent living in New Jersey? We will not recognize guardianship of anyone else here. That, in my opinion, eliminates a lot of the problems that we had before.”

There was hardly any discussion about the new transfer rules, which provide for narrow exceptions such as divorce, family relocation and justified allegations of bullying. Both rules will be sent to all 158 member schools, where administrators will vote yes or no.

To take effect, the changes must be ratified by two-thirds of schools, meaning at least 100 schools must support the changes.

Anna Harden

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