Board votes to change Utah high school rules for transfer, international students

Utah High School Activities Association attorney Mark Van Wagoner discusses new transfer and F1 visa rules during a recent meeting in Midvale.

Utah High School Activities Association attorney Mark Van Wagoner discusses new transfer and F1 visa rules during a recent meeting in Midvale. (Amy Donaldson, KSL)

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MIDVALE — Significant changes to high school sports in Utah cleared another hurdle Wednesday afternoon.

The board that oversees high school sports voted unanimously to change how student-athletes transfer between schools. They also voted unanimously — with one abstention — to limit the way student-athletes attending Utah schools on F1 visas can participate in sanctioned sports.

F1 restrictions

The visa rule changes mean schools have to decide how they want to treat students using F1 visas to attend and play sports. There are three options. Students attending Utah high schools with an F1 visa are not eligible for varsity competition, or else schools can 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 association and play independently, meaning they wouldn't be subject to the association's rules. Wasatch Academy decided to play an independent schedule with its boys basketball team and has had a lot of success.

"It's not a ban ... it is a competition-limiting feature which it's being done because there is a sense 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 had "numerous" complaints from parents, students and coaches that international student-athletes were being placed in Utah private schools. He said they looked into it and substantiated that two club organizations in other countries posted on social media sites announcements that student-athletes had been "placed" in Utah programs. He said three schools were listed on one organization's website as "partners."

"There's no question that there's placement," Van Wagoner said, "which, of course, would violate the recruiting rule. There's no question about that. So that part of the information we already know. And that's not what I'm currently investigating."

He said he's looking into what role Utah schools play in the placement of athletes.

"I'm trying to investigate the extent to which, if at all, any Utah high school knew about this placement, was aware of the schools that were sending, treated these students differently, did not require them to meet all of the otherwise set standards of the school, and/or deliberately failed to investigate," Van Wagoner said. "Those are the things I want to know."

Why now?

While there was discussion about holding off on changes until the investigations are complete, most wanted to deal with the issue as quickly — and as decisively — as possible.

"This is not coming from the top down," said Van Wagoner of the proposal first drafted in March. The association has had "numerous" complaints from parents, students and coaches that international student-athletes were being placed in Utah private schools for athletic purposes.

The board listened to 45 minutes of comments from private school principals, parents who'd hosted students, and international students from Judge Memorial High, St. Joseph's and Layton Christian Academy. They spoke against any change, but asked, at a minimum for more time to contemplate solutions that might not have so much collateral damage.

"Though I oppose any changes to the current UHHSA policy, I would just ask that, No. 1, no rule changes are made while this investigation is going on," said Patrick Lambert, principal of Judge Memorial. "I think that's an important part of this. If an investigation reveals that wrongdoings occurred, then let's deal with that."

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

"Please put these students first, recognizing so many have come here, they've followed the rules, they've done everything right, and they just want to participate in their school activities," Lambert said. "And I would just remind us of how I think our inclusivity here at the state is something that's really important to us. We've been inclusive for so many years, and please, keep putting the children first."

The board discussed many options, including allowing those currently attending Utah schools on F1 visas to be "grandfathered" in, but ultimately there wasn't enough support for softening the change.

"I say let's make the hard call," said Todd Quarnberg, principal of Herriman High. "And it goes out to the member schools. They can vote."

Sending the issue to the schools was widely supported by the board because that's where the complaints came from.

"They are making the final determination," said Brent Strate, who represents the Utah State Board of Education. "If there is not a two-thirds vote, then we're back at square one."

Transfer rule

The new transfer rule states that students who have played a sport at any Utah high school within the past 12 months can transfer for any reason, but they will automatically be ineligible to play for 30 days — or 50 percent of the games — whichever is greater. If a student transfers a second time, they are ineligible for a full year.

The new rules force schools to make most determinations when students transfer, and it eliminates a massive loophole — the use of guardianship changes to switch schools.

"Then current guardianship rule is a hole so big, you could drive a truck through it," Van Wagoner said. "No nonparental guardianship will be recognized for a student who has a living parent. So, a student has a living parent in New Jersey? We will not recognize a guardianship to somebody else here. Which I think eliminates a lot of the problems that we had before."

There was very little discussion about the new transfer rules, which maintain narrow exceptions like divorce, full family moves and substantiated claims of bullying. Both rules will be sent to all 158 member schools where administrators will cast a yes or no vote.

The changes must be ratified by two-thirds of the schools in order to go into effect, which means at least 100 schools need to respond in support of the changes.

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Utah K-12 educationHigh School SportsUtahSalt Lake CountyEducation
Amy Donaldson
Amy Donaldson is an executive producer with KSL Podcasts. She reports, writes and hosts “The Letter” and co-hosts “Talking Cold.” She spent 28 years as a news and sports reporter at the Deseret News.


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