Can Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools stop the cheating?
Superintendent Peter Gorman is turning to mandatory honor codes, telephone hot lines and improved computer tracking to stop the wave of student-athletes who've been lying about their home addresses to play for desired teams.
Some who've been watching CMS' months-long athletics scandal say the moves will likely slow the phenomenon as people turn cheaters in, sometimes for reasons as purely selfish as hurting a rival school.
But others say the reforms stop short of perhaps the most comprehensive solution: a college-style eligibility rule under which all students who switch schools must sit out from athletics for a season.
Gorman's plan, unveiled at a news conference Friday, adds just one part-time, temporary employee to the district's two-person athletics department staff to help with compliance checks. He'll ask during the next budget cycle for full-time athletics directors. (ADs now teach part-time).
For now, his plan focuses less on catching offenders than in trying to keep them from breaking the rules in the first place, either through ignorance or willful cheating.
Among his changes: All parents, coaches, athletics directors and students must sit through mandatory meetings where the rules are explained. All must sign documents saying they understand the rules.
And when they fail to follow them, Gorman hopes so many get turned in via hot line tips that cheating becomes fruitless.
“We're not out to create a class of spies here, or to shrug off our own substantial responsibility for verification and compliance,” he said. “But we are being very clear. We expect our parents and our students to play fair. If someone else is cheating and you know it, you're expected to share that information with us.”
His plan follows months of embarrassing revelations of cheating in high school athletics. Since November, the school system has investigated more than 200 student-athletes and declared 20 ineligible. Four coaches have resigned or been removed, and four high schools have forfeited football seasons.
Just this week, two athletes from Butler High and one from Independence were declared ineligible for falsifying their addresses during the 2007-08 school year.
N.C. athletics officials say they've never seen anything like it.
Gorman said he didn't believe his reforms would stop the problem but hoped it would slow it. The ideas sprouted from a 24-member community task force he asked to study the problem.
It will be tough to rein in cheating as long as there's fierce competition for athletic scholarships, say Davidson College Athletic Director Jim Murphy and Denisha Hendricks, assistant athletic director at Johnson C. Smith University.
“Parents feel so strongly, and to some extent irrationally, about the scholarship opportunities that they're not going to stop at anything,” Murphy said. “The number of scholarships that the parents – not the kids, the parents – are chasing is so few.”
Murphy said CMS efforts to crack down on eligibility fraud are likely to have two consequences: Families who are desperate to get into specific schools will move, rather than falsify documents. And coaches will start turning each other in for violations, a common pattern in colleges.
George Walker, an Independence High School teacher who has closely followed the cheating scandal, said he's talked to coaches who say neighbors are reporting neighbors to school authorities. He said he's even heard of second-string athletes reporting teammates whose roster spots they covet.
“It's getting cutthroat out there,” Walker said. “No high-profile athlete is going to switch schools without doing it legally. Everybody's going to be watching what house door they come out of.”
Myers Park High Athletics Director Greg Clewis said: “Probably as you get toward the end (of the season) and the pack starts separating itself in terms of wins and losses, I'm sure there will be people with legitimate tips or an ax to grind,” he said.
A half-dozen Myers Park High football players said Friday they doubt the honor code would have a big impact on eligibility problems.
“People are going to cheat. They're going to find ways,” said Eliga Johnson, a senior offensive lineman.
Robert Waterhouse, a senior receiver, said the rules could make some difference. “It will be more in your face. There's always holes, but I'm glad they're trying to be fair.”
Myers Park football coach Jim Ruark said he thinks the new policies will make eligibility rules more clear. “It certainly will help, so coaches know what the rules are and know what they should know anyways,” Ruark said
Critics say Gorman and his task force bypassed the simplest, most effective solution: making all students who switch schools sit out from sports for a year. If they present a convincing, nonsports reason for their move, they would be allowed to play.
But Gorman and many task force members feared student-athletes would be penalized simply because their parents wanted to move to a better neighborhood.
That explanation didn't sit well with Scott Reid, a former youth sports coach who believes families with money can still switch schools for athletic, rather than academic, reasons.
“Right now, the tail's wagging the dog,” he said. CMS “has just basically said, ‘We can't control it.'”
But others praised Gorman for taking a strong stand against cheating. Que Tucker, deputy director of the N.C. High School Athletic Association, said CMS is going farther than any N.C. district she knows of with its honor code and mandatory parent preseason meetings.
Hendricks said stopping the cheating will take time.
“The nature of sports across the world is extremely competitive,” she said. “It's ingrained in the culture of sports. It's not always a good thing.”