Howard County school officials announced yesterday that they will launch a sweeping examination of the academic eligibility of high school athletes after an investigation into improper grade-changing at Columbia's Oakland Mills High School uncovered 16 ineligible students participating in activities ranging from varsity football to cheerleading.
The teams with unqualified members will have to forfeit all season wins, and the school's athletic director, Ken Hovet, has been "relieved of his responsibilities," schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said yesterday. Disciplinary action against other school staff is pending Board of Education approval, he added.
"Academic integrity is absolutely fundamental to the life of a public school system," O'Rourke said. "Anything that violates that academic integrity has to be dealt with in a straightforward and crisp fashion."
Rather than each school self-policing its athletic programs, school officials said they will review eligibility records at every high school for winter sports and perform random spot checks thereafter. Finances will also be scrutinized.
Howard County requires a 2.0 minimum grade-point average and no failing marks from the previous semester for eligibility to play sports or participate in other extracurricular activities. But in November, Principal Marshall Peterson announced that a football player's grades had been improperly changed to meet the requirements. The team, which Hovet coaches, was forced to forfeit its seven season wins, along with its playoff spot.
Hovet had been on paid administrative leave since Peterson stepped forward, but the pay was revoked yesterday, O'Rourke said.
"I'm disappointed but I'm not surprised when you have politicians looking for a fall guy," Hovet said. "Hopefully the truth will come out in the next several weeks."
"Any action that I took was done at the direction of the Oakland Mills administrators," Hovet said.
Don Disney, the county's coordinator of athletics, said that "there have been two instances where a coach or an athletic director has been removed for disciplinary action in the 1990s."
Tony Cole, a senior football team captain, said he trusts Hovet.
"I just don't think he would jeopardize the football season after developing athletes for four years," Cole said.
Peterson's revelation spurred O'Rourke to launch a two-month investigation that confirmed the grade-changing allegations and uncovered participation by other students who did not meet county academic requirements, though their grades had not been changed. The 16 students involved were:
two varsity football players
four junior varsity football players
one junior varsity field hockey player
one junior varsity volleyball player
two members of the boys' cross country track team
two junior varsity cheerleaders
four varsity cheerleaders
"That's just unacceptable," O'Rourke said. "That's just in no way anything that we can tolerate."
Disney said he would turn the findings over to a state rules and infractions committee that will recommend penalties to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletics Association, which could include rendering the school ineligible to compete in state competitions this year.
O'Rourke said there were multiple people responsible for the improprieties and "more than one person will be disciplined, each person differently" depending upon their involvement.
Disney said that at least three people are responsible for ensuring a student's academic eligibility to play sports: the coach, the school's athletic director and a designated administrator.
And O'Rourke added a fourth: "The principal is responsible for everything that goes on within a building," he said. "Ultimately, the principal is responsible."
Peterson was not available for comment last night.
Officials said the school was not properly checking for eligibility and in one instance allowed a grade to be changed improperly, though no reasoning for the move was offered yesterday.
The player whose marks were altered was not a star athlete and played sparingly, which has caused some in the community to wonder what the motivation would be in changing his transcript.
O'Rourke said he will talk with school staff today along with Michael Martirano, who oversees administration and headed the investigation, to help them absorb the news. Disney will meet with Oakland Mills coaches, as well as athletes, some of whom are distressed about the events.
"Everyone became so demotivated after it came out that everyone's grades have dropped. People don't want to do winter sports. It's just killed their motivation," said Cole, who added that Hovet was a motivator for the school.
"[Hovet] has always been for the kids," said Sam Singleton, a track coach at Reservoir High School whose recent firing as football coach was widely protested by students. "I'm sure some people don't always agree with his ways, but he does an outstanding job teaching and motivating young men."
Officials said they do not expect to find infractions at other schools, but promised a thorough investigation and vigilance.
"We can never let this happen again," Martirano said.