Two students at Cordia High School in Knott County have filed separate lawsuits against the Kentucky High School Athletic Association in an effort to let them play basketball this year.
Richard Chapman Jr. and Josh Ortiz want a Franklin Circuit Court judge to reverse decisions by the KHSAA declaring them ineligible to play. Chapman, 16, a junior, moved to Eastern Kentucky from Newark, N.J., while Ortiz, 17, a senior, moved from Harlem, N.Y.
Chapman and Ortiz have both asked for injunctions that would allow them to play basketball for Cordia for the remainder of the season. Last year, two other Cordia students — Canadian transfers Emmanuel Owootoah and Marlon King — were initially ruled to be ineligible, but both received injunctions that allowed them to play. Owootoah now plays for Fresno State.
Joe Angolia, communications director for KHSAA, said the association does not comment on pending litigation.
The Knott County community "is furious and angry" that Chapman and Ortiz have been ruled ineligible, said Alice Whitaker, director of the Cordia School.
"It's sad because we know that this will probably be the only chance these kids will ever have," Whitaker said.
"These kids come out of very, very bad situations in New York and New Jersey, and this is their hope.
"We feed them well, we treat them well, the community has taken them in. These kids are doing well in school."
Whitaker said KHSAA representatives have allegedly told people that Cordia and she are under investigation.
"They asked questions of the kids — if I had paid them to come (to Cordia). Which is totally ridiculous," Whitaker said. "Never, never did I pay anybody to come,"
Cordia's basketball team is coached by Rodrick Rhodes, a former University of Kentucky standout, a former NBA player, and an experienced Division I college assistant who decided to take up coaching high school students in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Rhodes could not be reached for comment.
The KHSAA has a transfer rule that prohibits a student from participating in athletics at a new school in any sport for one year from the date of enrollment in the new school. Exceptions are made for students who move with their families before enrolling in the new school, students whose parent has died or whose parents are divorced, and students ordered to move in child protection cases.
The transfer rule is in place to fight a history of recruiting abuses in a sports-hungry state where coaches and parents will go to extremes to get students on a team. But in recent years, parents, legislators and some members of the Kentucky Board of Education have said the KHSAA has too much power; that its decisions are arbitrary and take too long; and that, ultimately, it finds too many children ineligible to play.
The Chapman and Ortiz lawsuits were initially filed earlier this month in Franklin Circuit Court. They were moved to U.S. District Court in Lexington when KHSAA said the allegations were predominantly federal in nature.
W, Chapman Hopkins, the lawyer who represents Chapman and Ortiz, said the quickest way to remedy any claim was to have a state court decide the issue, so the suits were transferred back to Franklin Circuit Court.
Chapman's suit says he moved to Hazard in September with his father, Richard Chapman Sr., who is his sole, legal guardian. Chapman's parents divorced in 2000, and from 2000 to 2010, Chapman lived with his father. But from 2010-12 he lived in Newark with his biological mother and three half-siblings, none of whom shared Richard Sr. as a father.
From 2010 to 2012, Chapman's parents had determined that he should live with his mother so Chapman could attend a school that Richard Sr. "believed would be safer and would afford better educational opportunities" for his son.
However, it became apparent that the living and educational environment which Chapman was in "was no less violent or disruptive than his previous setting with his father," the suit says.
So Richard Sr. began looking for alternatives for his son, and during a conversation with a co-worker, he learned about Cordia, which "offered safe and structured learning and social environments, and accepted out-of-state, underprivileged students, such as Chapman," the suit says.
So father and son moved to Hazard in neighboring Perry County and rented an apartment near Cordia.
Following enrollment, Chapman met Rhodes, who has had a dream of turning Cordia into something like Oak Hill Academy, the nationally famous Virginia prep school that attracts some of the best basketball players to a remote locale.
Cordia was founded in 1933 by Alice H. Slone as a settlement school in a remote part of Knott County. With an enrollment of 325 students, Cordia is a public school but receives some financial support from a private foundation run by Whitaker, Slone's niece, who is director of the school now.
The KHSAA ruled in November that Chapman was ineligible for one year because none of the permitted exceptions were satisfied. A hearing on the matter was held on Dec. 30, but the suit says "no final ruling from the commissioner has been received."
The suit cites several errors in the hearing officer's findings of fact, weighing of evidence and interpretation of KHSAA bylaws.
For example, the hearing officers "erroneously concluded that Chapman did not meet the exemption for bona fide change in residence," the suit says. "The only grounds upon which the hearing officer determined that the requirements were not met, were that Chapman's mother and half-siblings did not move to Hazard as well. This interpretation ignores the evidence regarding Chapman's family structure and custodial arrangement. To that end, the uncontroverted testimony was that Chapman's parents have been divorced since 2000. In connection with the divorce, Richard Sr. obtained sole custody of his son."
The suit says Chapman "likely possesses enough talent to warrant consideration from college basketball programs if he is permitted to showcase that talent in competition — however, he has precious remaining time to do so."
The Ortiz suit says he enrolled at Cordia in August after he and his father, Raymond Ortiz, also moved to Hazard. Ortiz had previously lived with his biological mother and half-siblings, none of whom shared Raymond Ortiz as a father.
Ortiz's parents were never married and never lived together. Ortiz lived with his father for the majority of his life, but lived with his mother during the last two years.
But the suit says Ortiz's educational and social environment became increasingly dangerous.
"Ortiz lived a significant distance from his high school in an impoverished and drug and gang-filled community, and was forced to take a train and a bus each day, during which time he encountered extremely dangerous conditions," the suit says.
In his junior year, Ortiz began to research schools outside of New York. Through a friend, Ortiz learned about Cordia and its credit-recovery program "where students could catch up on missed or lacking high school credit and improve their grades to improve the likelihood that they graduated on time."
Ortiz visited Cordia twice — once with his mother and then with his father. Raymond Ortiz and his son moved to Hazard in July and rented an apartment near Cordia.
"At no point in time during their visits to Cordia or in their discussions prior to enrolling did Ortiz or his father discuss or request information about the basketball program at Cordia," the suit says. "Ortiz and his father had no contact or discussions with anyone involved with the basketball program at Cordia prior to enrollment."
Josh Ortiz did not meet Rhodes until after he was enrolled. Ortiz tried out for the team and about a month later was informed he had made the team.
As in the Chapman case, the KHSAA ruled that Ortiz was ineligible for one year, and that he failed to meet any of the exceptions that would allow for a waiver.
Ortiz appealed the decision, and a hearing was held on Dec. 30. No final ruling from the KHSAA commissioner has been received, the suit says.
Once the commissioner has filed a final order, a hearing for an injunction in each case will be scheduled, Hopkins said.
For the moment, neither Chapman nor Ortiz can practice or play with the Cordia team.
"We feel they are being irreparably damaged by the fact that they can't participate right now," Hopkins said. "We would hope the KHSAA would take that into account and issue a final ruling as soon as possible, but so far that hasn't happened.
"The best interest of the student athletes is getting to the bottom of whether they are eligible, and getting to the bottom of that as quickly as possible, so that if they are eligible they preserve their opportunity to participate in basketball season this year."
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety