BPS appeals to state Education Department to have Bennett football forfeits, coach suspension reversed

Buffalo Public Schools has filed an appeal with the New York State Education Department, seeking to overturn Section VI’s decision to rule Bennett football’s first four wins of last season as forfeits and suspend coach Steve McDuffie for a game because the team used an ineligible player.

“Our hope is that the state Ed Department will take a look at it,” Michael House, the BPS assistant superintendent of athletics, told The News. “The hope would be to take a look at the current situation and there would an immediate reversal of the suspension towards coach McDuffie and that the team would be granted back the wins they were stripped of.”

The appeal, known as a 310, “provides that persons considering themselves aggrieved by an action taken at a school district meeting or by school authorities may appeal to the Commissioner of Education for a review of such action,” according to the NYSED bylaws.

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According to documents obtained by The News, BPS initially appealed Nov. 14, days after Bennett won the Section VI Class AA championship at Highmark Stadium. The section responded a few weeks later, saying it does not have the authority to overturn Section 19 of the bylaws and eligibility standards within the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Handbook. Section 19 states, “If a school uses an ineligible student in any interscholastic contest, such contest shall be forfeited to the opposing schools.”

The section directed BPS to file an appeal with the state, which it did Jan. 18, adding new information it said was acquired through Freedom of Information Law requests. 

The case is now in the hands of NYSED Commissioner Betty A. Rosa. BPS expects Rosa could rule in the next couple of months. 

The continued pursuit of the ruling comes after Bennett won the Class AA state championship with a 7-6 record.

On the field after a 42-8 victory against Newburgh Free Academy in late November at the JMA Wireless Dome, McDuffie said the adversity the Tigers faced might make them stand out among state champions.

“If we look back at this 20, 30 years from now, we’ll always be special,” McDuffie said, “because I predict we’ll be the only state champion that’s 7-6.”

On Oct. 14, a player identified as “D.C.” in the documents was ruled ineligible. The player had played junior varsity football at Sweet Home during the fall of 2021 as an eighth-grader, but his athletic transfer notification form was not completed as required by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.

Section VI, which applies and enforces NYSPHSAA rules, determined the absence of the form made the player ineligible to play for Bennett. The player and his family moved to Buffalo during the summer of 2022, BPS said in its appeal.

On June 29, the player withdrew from the Sweet Home Central School District and enrolled at Canisius High School the same day, according to the documents. He would eventually withdraw from Canisius Crusaders and enroll in BPS in July.

On Oct. 11, Section VI Executive Director Mark DiFillipo emailed House notifying him the section didn’t have the paperwork for the player. House replied by providing the first two pages of the transfer form and said, “the district had no prior knowledge that [D.C.] played JV football at Sweet Home.”

On Oct. 12, the Section VI Executive Committee met and decided that the player was ineligible and Bennett would have to forfeit the games in which he played. 

BPS argues a decision was made “prematurely and without investigation” and the decision should be voided and reversed.

In the documents, the district said “D.C.” was a resident and student in Buffalo, and because he was a middle school graduate, he wasn’t transferring between high schools and did not need to complete the transfer form. Bennett’s roster had seven transfers from other high schools entering the 2022-23 academic year who filled out the necessary paperwork, BPS said. 

The district also cites the NYSPHSAA handbook as saying “transfer rule violations can be made on a ‘case-by-case’ context.”

“Buffalo Public Schools contends the Transfer Rule does not apply here,” the district filing said. “Even if it does, Section VI imposed the most severe punishment for what was ultimately a clerical mistake made by the District, not the Bennett Varsity Football team, and certainly not by Student D.C. (an incoming freshman at the start of the 2022-2023 academic year). It should be noted that the transfer waiver for Student D.C. was nearly immediately granted upon request. There were no recruitment allegations.”

McDuffie was suspended for the Tigers’ 42-14 victory against Niagara Falls on Oct. 14, the team’s next game after the forfeit decision.  

McDuffie returned for the final regular season game the following week against Hutch-Tech and coached the team through the Section VI and state playoffs.

“The suspension impacts his reputation as one of the best high school coaches in Western New York,” Nathaniel Kuzma, BPS’ lawyer, said, “and that it could be taken into account if there are future allegations that are made by the section that he already has this one penalty and so that next one should be more severe. That’s why it’s important to us that his name and record be cleared.”

While BPS wants the reversal, the district said it also would like to see changes occur in the handbook for the future. BPS has been steadfast in describing the issue as a “clerical” error.

“Further look into this type of situation where you have a bona fide student who made the move into the district and it comes down to a clerical error,” House said. ”What will the state department and NYSPHSAA do in the future in regard to these consequences imposed on a team? My hope would be that they would not negatively impact a coach or a program and ultimately the students.

“I’d hope they’d look at their policies in the NYSPHSAA handbook and they’d try to publish better rules and guidelines that would support student-athletes and parents in these situations.”

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