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CMS adds eligibility rules

By Steve Lyttle
slyttle@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools today announced a series of steps to deal with athletic eligibility violations, including requiring student-athletes and their parents to sign honor codes, and enabling the public to e-mail or phone in anonymous tips.

“We're not trying to create a class of spies, or to shrug off our responsibility,” CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman said during a late-morning news conference. “But we are demanding that everyone play fair.”

The new codes were based on 11 recommendations made by a 24-member athletic eligibility advisory committee formed in January, after numerous cases in which student-athletes were declared ineligible after the fall 2007 sports season. A series of Observer articles highlighted some of those violations.

In most cases, the issues involved student-athletes who played at schools where they were not eligible to attend.

The CMS policy change even came with a slogan – Play Fair.

Four schools – Berry Academy, East Mecklenburg, South Mecklenburg and West Charlotte – were forced to forfeit victories from their 2007 varsity football seasons. Student-athletes from a number of other schools were ruled ineligible.

However, a lengthy investigation by CMS failed to turn up any evidence of rules violations by the coaching staff at Independence High School.

Many of the changes announced today will focus on educating athletics directors, coaches, students and parents about eligibility rules. But Gorman also said he wants to convert athletics director jobs to full-time positions next school year. And he said CMS will ask state officials to institute statewide standards for coaches to follow in the area of eligibility.

“We all need to be on a level playing field,” Gorman said.

Some of the changes involved heightened security by CMS. Administrators will more closely monitor computer software that can alert school officials to students who might be violating eligibility rules.

“For every student at CMS, there is a yellow button (on a computer page) that can signal an alert,” said Scott McCully, CMS' executive director of planning and student development. “It can be used for a variety of things – for example, a magnet (school) assignment.”

Gorman also announced that a compliance officer will be assigned to handle eligibility cases through the end of this year. He hopes to extend that assignment, provided the school system gets funding.

But many of the new guidelines focus on education.

Those changes include:

-- Producing and distributing an eligibility brochure. “We have produced thousands of those,” Gorman said.

-- Producing a DVD on eligibility rules, which will be ready in September and shown to student-athletes. Gorman said CMS-TV, the school system's cable TV station (channel 3 on Time-Warner's Charlotte system), will air the program repeatedly, starting next month.

-- Possible production of a podcast, which students and family members can watch.

-- Adding a complete explanation of eligibility rules to the student handbook and on the CMS Web site, www.cms.k12.nc.us.

-- Requiring student-athletes and their parents to attend an open house education sessions before the start of athletic seasons. “Attending this program is mandatory,” Gorman said. So far, he said, attendance has been “outstanding.”

-- Scheduling a regular series of meetings for coaches, athletics directors, guidance counselors and others who are involved in the student eligibility issue.

Gorman also said all coaches will be required to take, and pass, a test on compliance issues.

“We will ask the state athletic association at its October meeting to institute a compliance test statewide,” the superintendent said. “We actually believe that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are leading the state in this issue.”

The two other aspects of the new guidelines are the honor code and the violation hotline.

Student-athletes and their parents are required to sign the honor code before athletic seasons begin. “No sign, no play,” said Gorman, who added that all people required to sign the code have done so, to this point. The honor code states that student-athletes are not violating the athletic eligibility requirements.

The violation hotline will offer a way for people to e-mail or phone in possible complaints. The phone number is 980-343-1098. The e-mail address is playfair@cms.k12.nc.us.

Gorman said he realizes the changes won't curb all attempts to cheat.

“I don't expect this to be the end of the tips and calls,” he said. “There will always be some students and parents who choose to cheat.”

And he said he realizes the new rules are a burden for those who follow the rules, adding, “The majority of our students and parents play fair.”

But, he added, “Ignorance no longer will be an excuse. We will make every effort to play fair.”

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