One residual effect of a divorce action is that a child may have to change schools and interrupt a comfortable and reliable routine and schedule which likely includes their participation in sports and extracurricular activities. And though a majority of parents would prefer their children to remain in their current school and school district, there are times when it is a necessity, either as a product of a new custodial arrangement or parental relocation. Unfortunately for parents and children, particularly high school age children, enrolling a child in a new school and getting him or her involved in extracurricular activities is not always as simple of a process as it would seem.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (“PIAA”) is the governing body for the athletic programs of the vast majority of Pennsylvania’s junior and senior high schools. Their job is to regulate interscholastic competition among their member-schools, and to establish rules, guidelines, and criteria for student-athlete eligibility. For kids transferring from one PIAA school to another, or from a non-PIAA school (such as the members of the Philadelphia area’s Catholic League) into a PIAA school, it is necessary that their transfer fulfills the eligibility criteria set forth in the PIAA’s rules. It may be necessary for the child to apply to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (“PIAA”) to confirm their eligibility and participation in an interscholastic sport at their new school.
For those activities under the jurisdiction of the PIAA, it is important for the child’s parents, particularly the custodial parent, become familiar with what is required of them by the PIAA. The PIAA addresses the issue of children who transfer due to their parents’ separation and/or divorce in Section 2(C) of the 2008-2009 PIAA Rules and Regulations. Parents should also speak with school administrators from the old school and the new school as early as possible and obtain a certification from them indicating that the transfer is not “materially motivated in some way by an athletic purpose” (emphasis added) – a broadly defined phrase that will draw an immediate rejection from the PIAA. By exploring and obtaining the necessary prerequisites, a parent can effectively resolve any issues related to their child’s transfer and make their transition into their new school as smooth as possible.
If a student has had their eligibility denied or is involved in a particularly contentious custody battle which has, unfortunately, seen him/her transfer back and forth between schools, the student may have to appear before a Regional Panel or District Committee and have their eligibility reviewed. Such reviews are quasi-judicial hearings in which the student and interested parties may offer testimony or other evidence in support of the transfer. Again, the PIAA’s emphasis is on preventing transfers for an athletic purpose, but unfortunately, the tell-tale signs of “team shopping” mirror changes in custodial arrangements. It may be difficult to believe, but it is not uncommon for ambitious parents to “separate” and for one to move into a new school district for the purpose of enrolling their child in a particular sports program.
Having had experience litigating issues related to student-athlete transfers and PIAA eligibility, despite the best intentions of the PIAA, I have seen how this process can be difficult to navigate for families and create some unintended consequences. This is particularly true for families in split custody situations, since the PIAA has a history – not without valid reason – for closely scrutinizing situations where a child’s primary residence switches to the non-custodial or “other” parent. It is strongly encouraged, therefore, that school transfers between split custody parents’ residences are accomplished as early as is feasible and the parents proactively seek to have their child’s eligibility approved in advance of the school year and/or sport season. The worse case scenario is if a child enrolls in one school, has their eligibility denied, and in their attempt to participate in sports, transfers back to their old school. Technically, this scenario falls under the PIAA’s interpretation of “athletic purpose” and could result in the child being declared ineligible for the year. For the sake of the child, it is critical to avoid this outcome and that parents be prepared to appeal any adverse decision by a PIAA district committee.
Sports and extracurricular activities can be extremely useful tools in helping a child adjust to their parents’ divorce. Parents owe it to their child to address relocation issues in a timely way and make the transition into a new home, school, and custodial arrangement are as minimally disruptive as possible.
More information related to the rules, regulations, and requirements of the PIAA can be found at www.piaa.org.