PANAMA CITY BEACH — Bay District Schools ultimately cleared Arnold and its football program of any substantial wrongdoing during an investigation last February.
Turning to an independent investigator, the district addressed allegations made by former student-athletes at Arnold that the school did not provide them with core classes necessary to graduate. Other allegations charged that an assistant coach provided cash payments to and arranged housing for football players, but those accusations were deemed baseless.
John Haley, Bay District Schools’ executive director of operational support services, said he contacted the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) when the allegations surfaced. He said the FHSAA, which oversees high school athletics throughout the state, suggested that the district bring in an independent investigator.
That led Haley to Vern Eppinette, who coached the Port St. Joe boys basketball team to five state championships between 1996 and 2001 and is a member of the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Eppinette also is a former compliance officer with the FHSAA.
Eppinette originally charged that Arnold failed to provide student-athletes with proper core classes, but those findings were overturned after the records were reviewed by Suzanne Farrar, district instructional specialist for secondary education, and Rutherford guidance counselor Rick Tutunick. In the district’s final report, Eppinette acknowledged there was confusion on his part regarding the school’s block scheduling.
“Based on our professional judgment, we did not see anything consistent in scheduling of core academic subjects,” Farrar wrote in a report addressed to Bay District Schools superintendent Bill Husfelt.
Football coach James Hale and then-athletic director Julie Hale each refuted the charges and claimed they had done anything wrong. The assistant coach named in the complaint, Mark Cowart, stepped down from that post and denied any involvement in giving money or housing to players. Arnold principal Keith Bland said Cowart has children who may attend the school in the future and wanted to dispel any misconceptions.
Julie Hale continues to teach at the school, but prior to the 2012 football season was replaced as athletic director. James Hale stepped down as head football coach last Thursday, saying he will assume different responsibilities following the completion of this school year.
Bland did concede he provides student-athletes with gift cards to area restaurants. The gift cards, which he said do not exceed $10 in value, also are awarded to the school’s students of the month, but he acknowledged they are handed out disproportionately to athletes. Haley, a former principal at Arnold, said he did the same during his tenure at the school.
As part of its response to the investigation, Bay District Schools tabbed Rutherford athletic director Kirk Harrell as the county athletic director. The district also assured it would provide athletes, coaches and parents with guidelines for student-athletes “with regard to gifts, rules and responsibilities” and develop procedures for the distribution of incentives such as gift cards and certificates. The district also asserted it would implement a policy concerning the transportation of student-athletes by coaches.