After three hours of discussion Monday evening, the Heber Springs School Board voted 3-2 in favor of allowing two transfers from Little Rock Mills to play basketball this season, overturning an ineligible ruling determined by high school principal Justin Johnston and upheld by Superintendent Russell Hester.
The administration initially ruled Willie Adkins, formerly Willie Williams, and Malik Gilliam ineligible, citing recruitment of the two student athletes, who Johnston said practiced with the team prior to enrollment along with other possible violations, including travel to AAU basketball games.
“It’s clear violations have taken place. If I sign off on that it would open up all our young men and women to sanctions by the AAA,” said Johnston. “I don’t know that he [Coach Kevin Kyzer] talked to them about coming to Heber but I know he practiced them. It’s my responsibility to enforce these rules.”
With emotions running high in a crowded meeting room, Heber Springs School District lawyer Jay Bequette and Kim Kelley, a family practice attorney hired by Steven Adkins to represent his adopted son Willie, debated the situation with the board as several witnesses took the stand.
Bequette opened by stating, “I just wanted to address the board at the beginning of this meeting and have a talk about the basic principles of school board governance. And following that the propriety of whether this board should even conduct this hearing.
“I’ve represented numerous school boards across the state and over 20 years of representing districts and school boards in educational matters. A lot of matters I’ve been involved in emanate from school board governance issues. I understand how it happens because we are human beings, boards are made up of human beings and we want to help people. We want to take action and sometimes it’s difficult to make the decision to refrain from taking action.”
Bequette recommended the board stand by Johnston and Hester’s decision to rule the student athletes ineligible. “The administration’s job is to administer, implement and enforce the policies established by the board. When things begin to go wrong and school districts and boards begin to operate ineffectively and inefficiently is when school boards try to do the job of the administration or when the administration tries to do the job of the school board. When that happens dysfunction results because the way efficient, effective institutions run is when they stick to the roles and responsibilities defined by statute and by board policy and the laws that govern the operation of the board.
“The specific matter we are here for today is not provided for in any Arkansas laws, district policies, board policies, Arkansas Department of Education rules or any other source that I am aware of,” Bequette continued. “In a case of a student’s eligibility to participate in extra-curricular activities such as basketball in this case we look to the law provocated from the general assembly and the district and there is no district policy on student eligibility except for a statement in the student handbook that says the district is to comply with Arkansas Department of Education requirements regarding student eligibility to participate in extra-curricular activities. The Department of Education has in turn delegated the authority to oversee extra-curricular activities in this state and interscholastic athletics specifically to the Arkansas Activities Association.”
Page 2 of 6 - Bequette warned that allowing the two athletes to participate in an event sanctioned by the AAA could compromise the entire athletic program for up to one year. “It’s up to the Superintendent or principal to enforce AAA rules not the school board. There is no provision under AAA rules, Arkansas law for the board to be involved at all in the determination of a student eligibility for extra curricular activities,” said Bequette.
Furthermore, Bequette said the students have an option to take the case to the equity office at the Arkansas Department of Education or Office of Civil Rights located in Dallas.
“Due process does not attach to the participation in extra-curricular activities because participation in extra-curricular activities is not a constitutional right, it is a privilege. In the case of a student seeking to be eligible for extra-curricular activity, due process is not an issue because there is no constitutional right involved.
“If a student disagrees with the administration’s decision to determine eligibility the student has recourse. If a student believes his or her eligibility was improperly determined and that decision was motivated on whole or in part by race, there is an equity department at the Arkansas Department of Education that receives complaints and is authorized by the department to investigate and rule on those complaints.
“There is also an office of Civil Rights located in Dallas through the U.S. Department of Education that is explicitly charged with investigating claims that students were discriminated against. It’s not like the students or parents here do not have recourse if it is believed the decision was made on race, sex or some other suspect classification,” concluded Bequette.
In rebuttal, Kelley argued that the players should be eligible. “You all represent the people in this community,” she told the school board. “No AAA rule has been violated. We have administrators saying it has been violated. What we need is the board to make a ruling. All students deserve equal access to compliment their education.”
Steven Adkins, who is the biological father of senior guard Austin Adkins, said he adopted Williams after witnessing his living conditions in Little Rock, where Williams stayed with his mother but qualified as homeless.
“I grew up in Little Rock in the mid to late 80s and kinda saw how things were. When we would take these kids home and see how they were living and Willie told me his story and how he was raised and what he had been through we didn’t want him to have to stay anywhere like that moving from this house to this house to this house. It broke our heart and we fell in love with the kid.”
Page 3 of 6 - Austin Adkins, Steven Adkins and several other Heber teammates and parents developed a relationship with Williams and Gilliam while watching the kids compete together on an AAU basketball team.
“I met them through basketball but there was four kids from Heber on the same AAU team out of Little Rock. They were coached down there so me and the other parents took turns carpooling so we wouldn’t all have to go down there for practices. Their siblings would come to practice and I met one of their grandmothers at practice and just like anybody else we talked to them, ‘Hey that’s my kid and things like that.’
“We got to know them a little bit and Malik and Willie and two other boys came and stayed the night at our house when we played in the Conway Tournament because it was close by. They fell in love with the place, with the area and couldn’t believe you could actually go to bed at night without locking your doors.”
Adkins adopted Williams on Nov. 12, 2013 and assumed his future adopted son was officially enrolled in late May after meeting with a school counselor. However, Johnston said Williams was not officially enrolled until Aug. 22.
In late May, with the consent of both Williams and Gilliam’s mothers, Adkins thought he had enrolled the two students at Heber. “The counselor got their transcripts sent over from [Mills] and told me I needed proof of residency on them. I told him I don’t have proof of residency because they were in the process of moving but I wanted to get them enrolled. I thought that was pretty much the end of it and they were enrolled. I didn’t know there was any other process,” added Adkins.
Kelley pointed to the school district rules to state her case for the two young men. “It says a student legally adopted and attending school in which his legal adoptive parents reside meets the requirement. Mr. Adkins should not be in position of having his biological child being able to play and his adoptive child not being able to play due to the timing of when he was adopted. They should all be treated equally as far as eligibility rules,” said Kelley.
Kelley stated the AAA recruiting rule, which reads “Athletic recruiting is defined as the use of undo influence and/or special inducement by anyone connected directly or indirectly with a AAA member school in an attempt to encourage or induce pressure, urge or entice a prospective student of any age to transfer or to retain a student at the school for the purpose of competing in interscholastic athletics.”
Page 4 of 6 - Adkins denied having any conversations of that nature, saying “No I did not.”
Willie, who reports a 3.5 GPA, took the stand moments later and described a terrifying upbringing in Little Rock, where he witnessed an armed home invasion while living with his biological mother. “They didn’t influence or entice me to come up here it was a decision made by me and my mom,” said Willie.
“Willie’s plan is to go to college whether he plays ball or not,” said Adkins. “We didn’t want to leave him there. We want him to be a part of our family and when he goes off to college he can still come home and this will be his home. Not to take anything away from his biological family because we are not keeping him from them. But with the help of a little bigger family … I can put him on my insurance through work and there is a lot more opportunity for him.”
Gilliam was also designated as homeless before moving to Heber Springs, where his mom Kimberly Gilliam, now resides. Gilliam officially enrolled at Heber on Aug. 14. “I’m not sure how a bona fide move applies to kids who are homeless ever,” said Kelley in response to Bequette, who said the boys had not made a move considered to be within the rules.
Mason Reed, a long time Heber Springs resident, spoke out on the issue. “I’m a little choked up over this. I’ve sat where you all are sitting now. I feel for these two gentlemen with all that has been set up with the rules and the regulations and the guidelines. But I know for a fact that there has been enticing and invitations to come to other programs in Heber Springs. This situation is tough on these two young men. They didn’t get their paperwork right and residence established. If we are going to play cat and mouse with who gets turned in there are other things going on that need to be looked at in the future. We need it to be a fair playing field,” added Reed.
Johnston insisted that he would do anything in his power for the kids involved, but allowing them to play would put the entire athletic program at risk.
“Right now I am in charge to enforce the rules. We are in the process of self-policing because we are in charge of enforcing the rules. I have spoken to the AAA and they do not make rules on eligibility. For me to knowingly say let’s roll the dice and see what happens is irresponsible, unprofessional and unethical. It’s not an option for our school district to run that risk with our students,” stressed Johnston. “We are making that decision to protect our school district. I feel for them and despite what anybody wants to say I care about them and want them to be successful.”
Page 5 of 6 - School board member Al Thomas, who made a motion to overrule the administration near the conclusion of the hearing, argued that the district rule used to determine eligibility was not in place until August of 2013.
“Because of the allegations of violations of certain rules that weren’t in effect I don’t think the school district and administration has made its case,” said Al Thomas. “When asked specifically why Kevin Kyzer is mentioned in a letter dated Oct. 4 and there is no proof. I don’t think the administration can adequately support what these statements say.
“And the various rules and allegations are related to practice and they didn’t apply. Whether summer school or providing room and board, I just don’t think the chin has come up to the bar and so I would move for the board to request for Mr. Hester to forward the eligibility list to include both Willie Williams and Malik Gilliam,” concluded Al Thomas.
Board members Gary Redd and Holly Meyer also voted to allow the players to play, while Rick Gardner and Kevin Thomas voted against the motion.
“I don’t think there is proof Coach Kyzer had a conversation with these kids,” said Redd. “I know too many parents that go to these games, sit in the stands with them and only one person can answer that. My only fear is, although I would love to see these two kids play ball, is that if somebody turned them in and they come in here to do an investigation and become a witch hunt, that it would only take one or two points to say it’s recruiting you are ineligible and you forfeit every game. I’ve got a lot of parents out there… We may be playing for a state championship. Can they handle that? It’s a hard decision.”
Meyer, who had the deciding vote as board chairsperson, added, “It’s a mystery to me why these parents were never given anything in writing.”
Kevin Thomas said, “I am judging this as if I am a AAA member because the AAA is going to determine this. From the outside looking in it looks like a few of the rules could be interpreted as being broken. But having two sets of rules here it’s not easy for anybody in this room.
“Being a foster parent as well I can understand offering a better life. Those boys have won just by living in this community eligibility or not they are in a much better place. I would hate to do anything that puts this school in a predicament. I’ve spent my whole life here, I graduated from here and this school means a lot … Much more than one basketball season. I don’t want to do something that will risk the rest of the team and I guess the AAA being non-responsive hurts us here. Principal Johnston I think you have done a great job of documenting this here. It’s all right here for us to see. I say all of that to say ‘Do you feel if we played these boys in half a game and self-reported the incident where do you see the harm in that?,” Thomas asked Bequette.
Page 6 of 6 - Bequette replied, “For them to be eligible their names have to be submitted on the eligibility list and I don’t believe the principal is willing to do that because to do so risks Mr. Johnston from being expelled from the AAA because he would have knowingly submitted an eligibility list with players that the principal believed ineligible would be a violation of AAA rules.
“So I don’t think we ever get there but if the board does something else, orders the Superintendent to do that then the Superintendent has a decision to make. But I think we are in a situation where a responsible, ethical reasonable administrator could put his name to an eligibility list when the administrator believes the rule has been violated,” Bequette concluded.
Kyzer, who mentioned growing up in a difficult situation , said he is comfortable with allowing the players to participate as long as they registered prior to June, when the Panthers began practice.
“If the [registration] is before May 30 I am absolutely perfect with everything. Filling out registration papers and actually filling out a class schedule would the AAA not consider that registering? It’s been that way everywhere I have been. I know everybody on both sides has to feel for these kids. It’s hard for me to fathom that the AAA can’t make a decision and they are the governing body of sports. It’s bizarre to me.”
Willie Adkins played for the Panthers in Tuesday night’s game against Mayflower and Gilliam dressed out. Willie Adkins scored 10 points in Heber’s 57-54 overtime loss to the Eagles.