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Spurred by a state legislator’s demands, the Minnesota State High School League is exploring revisions of two contentious league bylaws that help determine student-athlete eligibility.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, got involved after a daughter of a family she knew ran afoul of two bylaws unintentionally and faced a premature end to her high school activities. While the student-athlete, Ceci Driano, ultimately won both appeals, her family and Rosen were incensed by what they contend is an arduous process and league members’ guilty-until-proven-innocent tone.

In a meeting last fall with MSHSL Executive Director Erich Martens and league board President Bonnie Spohn Schmaltz, Rosen said she “made it very clear to them that I expected changes. And if changes don’t come, then we will be pulling this whole issue in front of the Legislature. And that it’s not going to be pretty. Because every single legislator probably has some constituent, some example of this in their district, and they would love the opportunity to talk about it.”

At Rosen’s insistence, sweeping changes to the entire eligibility process are being discussed. The key point, she believes, is drafting bylaw language that presumes “the eligibility rules are to be liberally construed so as to make students eligible.”

That phrase comes from a Jan. 10 memo sent by Martens to Rosen. At issue are Bylaw 110, which allows students eligibility for 12 consecutive semesters beginning with their first entrance into seventh grade, and Bylaw 111, which deals with eligibility stemming from transfer and residence matters. Bylaw 111 aims to police student movement between schools for athletic transfers. Student-athletes lose a year of eligibility if they transfer schools without a change of residence.

“All these eligibility rules need a child-first mentality. Right now, it’s the opposite. It’s ‘how can we punish a segment of kids?’ ”
Steve Sommer, parent

A league task force to review the transfer bylaw was approved in February at the league’s board of directors meeting. Discussion of Bylaw 110 is ongoing.

Martens wrote in an e-mail that “it is very difficult when students are deemed ineligible,” adding, “Expedient reviews of eligibility situations will continue to be a focus to provide families and, most importantly, students with timely decisions based on their situations.”

Rosen’s involvement is the latest public outcry regarding concerns with the league’s processes for determining eligibility. More families such as the Drianos, whether or not they won their cases, still are fighting to ensure a less frustrating experience for future families.

Steve and Kim Sommer started a “Fix Bylaw 110” Twitter account after their son, James, was embroiled in an appeal process. He was granted eligibility and became the leading scorer for the Cristo Rey Jesuit basketball team this season.

The family of football standout Craig McDonald went public with its case against Bylaw 110. McDonald, who repeated the eighth grade when he enrolled at Minnehaha Academy to mature academically and socially, was forced to sit out his senior season at SMB, a three-school co-op that includes Minnehaha Academy.

“All these eligibility rules need a child-first mentality,” said Steve Sommer, whose son repeated the seventh grade for medical reasons. “Right now, it’s the opposite. It’s ‘how can we punish a segment of kids?’ ”

All three cases came in the wake of a 2017 report by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor that found the process for handling student transfers was plagued with “deficiencies’’ and needed action by lawmakers to provide more transparency. A follow-up report released less than a year later showed progress, but recommended discretionary legislative review of complaints regarding league eligibility bylaws, rules and procedures.

‘Talking in circles’

Nancy and Dominick Driano waded into league bylaw policies when their daughter’s brain injury resulted in a need to repeat her junior year.

Ceci Driano sustained a severe concussion on the soccer field a few days before her freshman season at Visitation, a private school in Mendota Heights. An exemplary student, Driano couldn’t remember what day it was, couldn’t walk in a straight line and couldn’t handle lights or reading. She attended only two full days of school her freshman year.

By her junior year in 2017, Driano regained her status as a full-time student and decided to try tennis as a fall sports alternative to soccer. Then another medical setback occurred when she collapsed at school on Halloween. Months of testing revealed that she needed neurosurgery to address underlying medical conditions aggravated by her concussion.

She missed a great deal of time at school and withdrew from Visitation because she needed a fresh start. She transferred to Mounds Park Academy, a private school in Maplewood located about 16 miles away, for the 2018-19 school year and repeated her junior year.

Because her family did not change its residence, Driano was automatically ruled ineligible for tennis, track and field and speech based on Bylaw 111. She appealed but was denied by the league. She pressed and was granted a hearing before the league’s eligibility committee, which approved her case without explanation.

“But by the time I was granted eligibility, I had about two tennis tournaments left,” Driano said.

Frustration peaked about a year later as Driano faced a second eligibility denial. This time it was because she repeated a grade and used up the 12 consecutive semesters provided in Bylaw 110.

The family wrote a lengthy letter to explain the complicated time line. The league didn’t budge. So the Drianos hired an attorney. The family appealed the ruling in person with the same information it presented in the letter.

“I was talking in circles because I didn’t know why I was denied the first time,” Driano said. “I didn’t know how else to prove that neurosurgery was not within my control.”

The league granted Driano eligibility for her senior year. But the process soured the family. So Nancy Driano reached out to Rosen, who had known the Drianos from when the family lived in Fairmont, part of Rosen’s district.

“It’s not right to keep kids out of activities,” Nancy Driano said. “I’m not sure what they’re protecting against.”

Ceci said jokingly, “The girl who taught herself tennis is a threat.”

Dominick Driano found no humor in the situation.

“I told them at one of the meetings that ‘I have a sense that you don’t take these things seriously until you’re threatened with a potential lawsuit,’ ” he said. “It’s not right. You can’t treat people this way. Who knows if they are going to change? They’ve been fighting people like us forever. Somebody’s got to do something.”

Options for change

Rosen had three meetings with league leadership last fall, characterizing them as initially contentious before becoming collaborative.

“They were really hurting people, whether the right leadership knew it or not,” Rosen said. “It took them a while, but they did come around.”

Martens, in his memo to Rosen, outlined several possible initiatives to refine the eligibility process by focusing on the experience of students and parents.

Ideas include expanding responsibilities for eligibility among other league staff members, providing training to activity directors and principals to effectively assist parents in eligibility cases, and creating a student advisory committee. Action could come as soon as June 1, when the league’s board of directors meets.

“Execution is nine-tenths of this whole thing,” Rosen said. “I will be watching this. If they pull this off and get this adjusted, this is a big deal. I’m banking on them being able to pull this off.”