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Tuesday, March 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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It oversees school sports, but group lacks teeth when rules are broken

Seattle Times staff reporters

WIAA at a glance


The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association oversees high-school athletics and activities throughout the state. Member schools, divided into nine geographic districts, compete for spots in WIAA-sanctioned state tournaments.

How states compare

Washington: 820 schools, 12 staff members, $3.5 million annual budget

Idaho: 146 schools, 4 staff members, $1.2 million annual budget

Ohio: 1,685 schools, 20 staff members, $15 million annual budget

California: Separated into 10 sections. The largest, the Southern Section, oversees 562 schools and has 14 staff members and a $2.7 million budget.

Sources: Individual state associations

Faced with what could be the largest high-school recruiting scandal in state history, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association is doing something you might find surprising:

Nothing.

The WIAA, which oversees high-school athletics in the state, has no authority to investigate the Chief Sealth High School girls basketball team, which just won a second consecutive state title amid allegations that coaches violated rules by recruiting players.

The task of investigating is left solely to the school, according to WIAA rules.

Chief Sealth and the Seattle School District began investigating after a Feb. 15 Seattle Times story detailed extensive rules violations at the West Seattle public school. Officials plan to complete their investigation by March 31.

If the school were in a different state, the investigation might have been handled much differently.

The WIAA's hands-off approach contrasts starkly with the authority of other state high-school athletic associations. Many of them are much more proactive when it comes to recruiting violations and eligibility issues.

The state associations in Ohio, California, Florida, Indiana and Idaho — to name a few — have the power to conduct their own investigations.

In cases involving serious recruiting allegations, some states, including Ohio and Florida, won't allow a school to investigate itself because of the conflict of interest or the appearance of being biased.

"It's like the fox guarding the henhouse," said Deborah Moore, assistant commissioner of the Ohio High School Athletic Association. "If you are the one to benefit from recruiting the student ... maybe you don't have an objective way to look at it."

New Jersey's association adjudicates serious recruiting violations in a mock-court setting, calling witnesses to testify and allowing different sides to question and cross-examine.

Ohio's, unlike most state associations, can suspend coaches, deny them coaching status or fine them up to $1,000 if they violate the rules.

In Alabama, athletes who transfer schools are scrutinized: Typically someone from the association or the school physically checks the old and new homes of athletes who have transferred to make sure they have, in fact, moved.

Not every state is that aggressive.

Oregon, for example, approaches recruiting allegations much like Washington does, relying on the accused school to investigate itself.

Bob Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said associations expect their member schools to respond appropriately when allegations surface.

"States expect their schools to self-report; they expect schools to police themselves," Kanaby said. "Then the state associations get involved."

WIAA's approach comes at the direction of its membership: the schools themselves, who approve the state's policies.

"I've gotten e-mails and phone calls from member schools, saying, 'Why can't you do something?' " about Chief Sealth, said WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese. "That's kind of a powerless feeling. You want to assist but the rules don't allow for any involvement from the state association."

Colbrese said school administrators believe in local control.

"You've got a league, then you've got a district, then you've got a state office," he added. "There's a strong belief that things should stay close to home and get fixed close to home."

Under WIAA rules, when a school is accused of recruiting violations, that school investigates the allegations. Then, the school's athletic league decides what penalties, if any, the school will face. The school district also can take action including disciplining coaches and ruling players ineligible.

The league's decision can be appealed above the league level to the athletic district and then to the WIAA executive board.

Even at that point, though, the WIAA cannot conduct its own investigation but must rely on the facts already uncovered by the school or school district.

In the Chief Sealth case, the Metro 3A League will rule on penalties after the school district completes its investigation. The league decision can be appealed to the Sea-King District, then the WIAA board.

Penalties could include the firing of head coach Ray Willis and assistants Laura Fuller and Amos Walters; forfeiture of games; or the loss of Chief Sealth's two state titles.

Complaint letter needed

Even the process of lodging a complaint is more challenging in Washington than in other states.

The WIAA doesn't take complaints. Instead, it refers anyone with an allegation to the accused school itself. If a member school has concerns about another school, it must write a letter of complaint to initiate an investigation. The accused school is then required to investigate.

After The Times' story, administrators from two Metro League schools, Bishop Blanchet High School and Lakeside School, co-wrote a letter calling for an investigation.

By contrast, state associations including Florida and California will initiate an investigation from an anonymous caller if the caller provides detailed information. Depending on the accusation, those associations might conduct their own investigation or ask the school to do it.

"I take anonymous complaints — where there is smoke there's fire," said John Stewart, the commissioner for the Florida High School Athletic Association.

Many states stay away from anonymous accusations, asking that whoever's making the claim also be willing to stand by it.

While rumors swirled around the Chief Sealth program for a few years, an investigation began only after The Seattle Times reported numerous recruiting violations by Willis, Fuller and Walters.

More than a dozen parents, players and coaches independently described to The Times how girls had been recruited to play at Chief Sealth, some as early as the sixth grade, with promises of college scholarships, places in the starting lineup and other enticements. Four parents said coaches even provided bogus lease agreements so their daughters could enroll in the school.

Willis, Fuller and Walters have denied any wrongdoing.

Six players who were recruited helped Chief Sealth win last year's state title. This season, two of them, Regina Rogers and Christina Nzekwe, led the Seahawks to an undefeated season and their second crown on March 4, over Issaquah High School.

As part of the ongoing investigation, a third player, Valerie Cook, was ruled ineligible by the school district the day before the state tournament began because she and her family lied about where they lived. Cook, a senior, was a two-year starter who had played in every game this year and averaged 6.5 points.

Some Metro 3A school administrators have expressed concern about how the school is investigating the coaches and how long the investigation is taking. They also questioned why the team was allowed to play in the tournament after Cook was ruled ineligible.

But school-district officials said they need the time to conduct a thorough investigation. And neither the district nor the WIAA has had to deal with a scandal of this magnitude before. The story was published in The Times two weeks before the state tournament.

Seattle School District investigator Eddie Hill, a former Chicago police officer, said some parents and players have been reluctant, at least initially, to share details of how Chief Sealth's coaches recruited.

Hill said he has a list of about 40 people to interview, including players, parents, coaches and administrators.

Difficult to prove

Even though some states investigate allegations more aggressively than others, most athletic-association officials agree that violations are extremely difficult to prove.

Often, coaches just deny recruiting. And players hesitate to come forward because they fear it could jeopardize their futures.

"If you have a student athlete being recruited, there's no incentive for them to come forward because there are penalties for them," said Moore of the Ohio association. "There's no incentive to be honest or truthful in those cases."

Often, officials are just left with conflicting "he-said, she-said" stories. But associations, fearing the potential for lawsuits, can't rely on that.

In Indiana, the state association has developed a standard of making sure it can win any case in court.

"Sometimes, we know something but we don't have the evidence to prove it in court, so we back off," said Blake Ress, commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. "It's sad, but you have to have evidence that you think you could win with."

Colbrese said the Chief Sealth recruiting scandal has renewed an interest in his office to see how other states handle investigations and what type of authority the associations have over member schools. He plans to suggest changes in the present system to the executive board and the member schools, though he doesn't know exactly what he'll propose.

"At some point," he said, "there has to be some way for a member school to come to the association saying we need help investigating ourselves or another member school."

Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or cwillmsen@seattletimes.com

Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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