Parents and student wrestlers who engaged in school choice during the Covid-19 pandemic challenged recruiting allegations in federal court last week as part of their civil rights lawsuit.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) imposed a series of stiff sanctions last year impacting wrestlers in the seventh through twelfth grades who transferred from the Forest Hills public school in Sidman to Bishop McCort, a private Catholic high school in Johnstown. The parents, students, and Bishop McCort principal Thomas Smith have argued that the transfers were academically motivated and done in response to the closure of public schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. The PIAA, however, has determined that the transfers were done for athletic purposes in violation of rules against recruiting.
The suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania claims the parents and students were denied due process and penalized without evidence. A decision could be issued within the next few days in response to the plaintiffs’ request for temporary and permanent injunctions against the sanctions. There are fifteen Bishop McCort wrestlers involved in the litigation.
“They have zero evidence,” John McMullen, the father of an eighth grade student wrestler at Bishop McCort, said in an interview. “They have no text messages or emails or anything. They’re throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks and they are grasping for straws. They are a bunch of bullies.”
The PIAA, a nonprofit, state-affiliated entity charged with creating policies that govern middle and high school sports, has barred Bishop McCort’s wrestling program and students from participation in its postseason contests for the 2021–22 and 2022–23 school years. PIAA has also placed Bishop McCort’s athletic program on probation through June 30, 2024, while disqualifying Bill Bassett, the wrestling coach, from coaching any athletic teams at PIAA schools for a two-year period beginning Dec. 1, 2021. The school must also submit a report to the PIAA’s District 6 committee detailing the “remedial measures” the school is taking to address concerns about recruiting. Otherwise, the committee could impose additional sanctions.
The PIAA’s five-member appeal board upheld the penalties imposed by its District 6 committee during a Dec. 1, 2021, hearing. But in their civil rights litigation, the parents, students, and the wrestling coach claim they were denied due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. The suits also claim the PIAA rulings violate their First Amendment right to “freedom of association.”
Time is a factor for wrestlers who could lose out on postseason and scholarship opportunities. The first round of postseason tournaments begins on Feb. 15. For this reason, U.S. District Judge Stephanie L. Haines heard testimony Wednesday and Friday last week on the motion for an injunction.
“None of the parents had any idea this was happening,” Bassett said. “There was no due process and the PIAA just went off assumptions. They didn’t ask for testimony from any of the parents and they did not ask the parents any questions about their specific situations. There’s also a defamation of character involved here that’s hurting my business.”
Bassett owns and operates a private facility in Johnstown known as The Compound where he trains athletes from ages four to 40. The facility is not limited to wrestlers. He was hired as a STEM instructor for Bishop McCort in February 2021 and became the school’s wrestling coach the following May. He is also the father of an eighth-grade wrestler who transferred into the school.
Almost 65 percent of the student transfers at issue in the case arrived before Bassett was hired as the wrestling coach, according to court documents. Principal Smith estimates there were about 88 students who transferred into the school between Oct. 2020 and Jan. 2021 and only about fifteen were wrestlers.
“While interviewing parents, they told me they wanted a school that offered excellent in-person education,” Smith said. “It’s un-American to prevent parents from having the right to choose if they find their children do not have the right school. We were prepared for the pandemic, and we do not apologize for that. This was about providing quality services during a challenging time for education. This was about putting kids first.”
‘It’s un-American to prevent parents from having the right to choose if they find their children do not have the right school.’
The PIAA’s District 6 Committee held two hearings last year involving recruiting allegations — the hearing on Oct. 6 involved just one student transfer from Forest Hills, but the subsequent hearing on Nov. 3 morphed into a larger case involving allegations against Bishop McCort, the parents, students, and coach. None of the plaintiffs were notified of the Nov. 3 hearing or of the Dec. 1 hearing before the PIAA Board of Appeal, according to the suit. Consequently, they did not have the opportunity to offer testimony and respond to the recruiting allegations. In fact, the principal is the only individual who was notified. Because of these “omissions,” the suit claims the PIAA “lacked jurisdiction” to take any action against the parents, students, and coach.
The plaintiffs also contend in the suit that “the uncontroverted evidence” shows the primary motivation for the transfers was academics and not athletics. During the Covid-19 pandemic, “Bishop McCort offered a greater opportunity for in-person learning as well as a blended academy (comprised of in person and ‘real-time’ online learning), which was far superior to the programs being offered by most, if not all, public schools in the Johnstown area,” the suit says.
Bassett views the PIAA penalties as a proxy for ongoing debates about the need for school choice.
“The public schools are getting nervous because the private schools were able to stay open and they were able to make their own decisions during the pandemic,” Bassett said. “Bishop McCort is the number one school in the area hands down for the number of days the kids were able to be in school. As a teacher and a parent, the atmosphere and the environment here at Bishop McCort is something I’ve never seen before. The kids who are here want to be here and they want to learn.”
Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is an investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for several national publications.