Editor’s note: This story was originally published Oct. 30, 2018 in the Har-Ber Herald, but was censored and ordered to be taken offline by school officials affiliated with Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Ark.
The Student Press Law Center is publishing the censored story as a public service.
“I was taught that once you start something, you always finish it,” Peyton Copher, a 2017 running back for the Wildcats, said. “I played with them for a very long time. I gave everything I had to this school, and I kind of feel like they should do the same.”
Despite Copher’s efforts, Har-Ber was eliminated from the 7A state football championship on November 10, 2017, in the first round of the playoffs following a 21-9 loss against Northside according to MaxPreps, bringing the season to a premature end.
“I put a ton of pressure on us to win. It was a win a state championship or bust year,” head football coach Chris Wood said in a recorded conversation. “We had a returning team that was really talented, and I put a ton of pressure on our coaches and players to win.”
After defeating Rogers 49-0 on September 22, and following a 56-14 route of Springdale High, the Wildcats were ranked 23rd in the nation according to USA Today. Despite winning the first two conference games of the season, the Wildcats suffered three straight losses to Bentonville, Bentonville West, and Fayetteville.
“The kids didn’t want to fail,” Coach Wood said, “and they felt pressure.”
The pressure was on the talented Wildcats and their junior quarterback Grant Allen. He completed 14 of 25 passes for 193 yards but threw three interceptions and had one fumble in the 21-24 loss to Bentonville. Against Fayetteville, Allen went 2 for 10 for 83 yards and threw two interceptions in the 28-34 loss. Allen completed 10 of 22 passes for 136 yards and threw
three interceptions against Bentonville West. The Wildcats lost 37-19.
“I’m honest when I assess our players. You know, when I went in there and watched film or when we coached,” Coach Wood said in a recorded conversation. “I told them if they didn’t do it right. That’s what I’ve been doing for 21 years. But that model doesn’t work for each and every kid.”
Following the first round loss and the end of the fall semester of 2017, Allen and five other Wildcat football players transferred to Springdale High School: Jerry McGill, E’kyious Sanders, Conner Sikes, McKane Woods, and Brock Pounders, all juniors.
“We just believe that we can perform better over there at Springdale High School,” said Sikes in a recorded interview conducted last year, “and we just want to go over there because we have a better chance of getting scholarships and playing at D1. We feel like the coaching staff over there will help us perform better.”
Sikes was a running back for the Wildcats during the 2017 season. According to MaxPreps, he combined for 44 yards on three catches during his junior season.
“I feel like we are being overshadowed by some of the other football players a little bit,” said Sikes in the same interview. “They disagree with what we’re doing, but we’re gonna do it anyways.”
“I just feel like it’s better for my future to go out there and get college looks,” Pounders said. “I feel like Springdale does a better job of that.”
The rules concerning transfer eligibility are outlined in Springdale Public Schools district policy, more specifically Administrative Rule – Policy JC. This policy outlines procedural specifics regarding who approves the transfer of students, as well as listing all acceptable reasons for a transfer.
According to procedure II of administrative rule, the request to transfer should first be given to the home school principal, who would then send the request to the principal of the receiving school for approval. This is stated explicitly within the policy. During the 2017 season, Dr. Danny Brackett served as the principal of Har-Ber, the home school of the transferring students, while Mr. Pete Joenks was principal of Springdale High, the receiving school. Dr. Brackett is now the Student Services Coordinator for Springdale Schools, and Mr. Joenks is the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for the Prairie Grove (AR) School District.
“I have not played any part in any transfer from Har-Ber in the last four or five years except for being informed, I might be informed,” Dr. Brackett said.
Despite having a policy that restricts transfers, Coach Wood offers a solution to this situation.
“I think the biggest thing [the district] can do is balance the academic programming and make it the same on both campuses” Coach Wood said in a recorded conversation.
Dr. Brackett stated in a recorded conversation that all six of these students transfer requests were sent directly to Mr. Joenks, who signed off on the transfers.
Springdale School District superintendent Jim Rollins, ultimately approved both the transfers and hardship.
”Well I can tell you this,” Mr. Joenks said during a recorded phone call, “all that stuff was done based upon the district procedures of that time and the practices of that time and all of those athletes were approved for eligibility by the the Arkansas Activity Association. I can tell you that it was all done under policies that were done in the Springdale School District for transfers and all the eligibility was done with the approval of the AAA.”
The Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) Guidelines Article III Section I covers all matters which concern athletes upon transfer. These guidelines state that students who transfer schools must either move domiciles or sit out one calendar year (365 days) after the date of transfer before they are able to compete in a sport. If neither of the prerequisites are met, then the
parents of the transferring athlete may file a Hardship Exception Application where they must pick from a list of exceptions.
In the AAA handbook, as pointed out by the Associate Director Steve Roberts, Section I Rule 17 lists the Hardship Exceptions for Eligibility. “Upon petition from a student’s school administrator, the Executive Director is authorized to waive the requirements of all eligibility rules except the
age rule if the school develops acceptable proof based on the stated criteria for a hardship waiver. Hardships must be applied for and approved by the Executive Director before a student participates in interscholastic competition. Hardships shall not be retroactive.”
There are multiple domicile exceptions listed in the AAA handbook; however, the students who transferred to Springdale would only fall under one of those categories which follows: Clause A Exception 8, “An extreme and unusual circumstance exists that is no fault of the student or the
NOTE 2: The petition shall not be authorized if the director obtains reliable information that the student is transferring to the petitioning school primarily for athletic purposes or as a result of inducement or recruitment.
Other exceptions of the eligibility requirements would be if the student has been identified as in need of special education or programs not offered at the students current school, or the students attendance is affected by unusual circumstances
In Sanders’ hardship request, provided by the AAA, his mother Shenekia Sanders explains that her son had come to the realization that his athletic career might not extend past high school. She goes on further to say that his enrollment into Springdale High was done with regards to his acceptance into Springdale High’s IT Academy, despite the fact that the timing of his transfer would not allow him to graduate from the academy by the end of the year, as a student would need to take the class all year to receive credit. Sanders played outside linebacker for the Wildcats in his junior season and combined for 30 tackles. According to MaxPreps, he has accounted for 57 tackles in the 2018 season as a Bulldog.
“As reality actually set in, he realized that sports will one day come to an end but his education will take him as far as he wants to go in life,” said Ms. Sanders in the request.
Four of the six hardship requests filed by the athletes’ parents (Sanders, Pounders, Sikes and Allen) followed a similar blueprint in their hardship requests, stressing the importance of education, the temporary nature of high school football and all mentioned Springdale High’s IT academy. Based on documents released by the AAA, McGill did not file a hardship.
Despite these listed academic reasons in the hardship request, when questioned about the reasons they were transfering, neither Sanders nor the other transfers mention academic reasons for leaving Har-Ber.
“I feel like there’s better opportunities. I feel like I can showcase my talent more over there,” Sanders said in an interview recorded last year. “I can just stand out more over there, and the coaches will put my name out there more.”
“I feel like it might be best for my future if I do it [transfer],” Allen said last year. “I’d say, like I plan on playing at a Division 1 college football level, so if I want to get there, I really feel like going to Springdale would be the best like to kind of get there.”
Allen sustained a season-ending injury and did not see the field for the rest of 2017. As a Bulldog, Allen suffered a broken ankle during a 48-14 loss to Fayetteville on Oct. 19.
When Coach Wood heard about the possibility of these players transferring to Springdale, he said, “I told them that I wanted them to stay. I told them that I love them. You could have a great senior year here.”
In a video timestamped December 2, 2017, the night of the 7A State Championship Mike Pounders, Brock Pounders’ father, concluded the end of the football season by burning Har-Ber gear in a fire pit. In the video he is surrounded by Gary Reed, Christy Pounders, and Springdale head football coach Zak Clark, as well as others.
Upon reviewing the video, the identity of who filmed the video is unclear. Near the end of the video, the phone is dropped and the face of Brock Pounders, who is wearing a Miami Hurricanes sweatshirt, is shown. Pounders, a wide receiver and cornerback for the Wildcats, saw little playing time in the 2017 season due to an injury. As a result, he had surgery in October 18 of that year.
In an email sent after the first publication of this article, Mike Pounders stated that Brock did not film the video, and that another transferring player, Jerry McGill, who was living with the Pounderses at the time, filmed the video.
When asked if McGill filmed the video, McGill said that he did not film it, and expressed that he did not know who did.
“This one goes to Chris Wood,” Mr. Pounders said.
“Trying to call plays and f*****g do everything else,” he shouted. “It’s culture over strategy! And he ain’t got either one of those motherf*****s! He gone god***t! He gone!”
Regarding the culture over strategy comments, Coach Wood said, “I really don’t know what hemeans by that, but one of the areas we had to grow in was our own culture, and that whole deal,one of our true focuses was the element of a culture in the house.”
The video depicts Mr. Pounders drinking; Coach Clark present as well.
“Missa Coach Wood doesn’t know how to f*****g coach football,” Pounders said. “Were burning all his s*it to f*****g hell! Ready, Set, [inaudible]…. Time out.”, said Mike Pounders in the video.
Coach Clark refused to answer questions about the inconsistency of the athletes reasons for transfer and again refused to comment on the video recorded in December 2017.
“No comment,” he said when being questioned in his office at the Bulldog fieldhouse Oct. 25. “I have a lunch meeting to get to.”
In the video Coach Clark can be seen in a long sleeve solid colored shirt and dark tan pants holding a bottle at the site of the fire, scattered voices can be heard saying his name as if to get his attention. When asked whether or not he was drinking alcohol in the video Coach Clark refused to comment. This is not a violation of Standard 8 in the Arkansas Teachers Code of Ethics because the bonfire was not on school premises or part of a school-sponsored activity. But it could potentially lead one to question the “professional” relationship described in Standard 1.
Standard 8 states “An educator, while on school premises or on school-sponsored activities involving students, refrains from using, possessing and/or being under the influence of alcohol…”
Despite the fact that Coach Clark is present at the non-school sponsored event, which is held off campus, the AAA has clear guidelines about recruiting.
AAA guidelines Article 3, section 1, rule 5, section L, number 7, regard recruitment. This rule states, “A coach may not contact or be contacted by a student or the student’s parents prior to enrollment in the school.”
The transfers were approved November 15 of 2017. Brock Pounders as well as the other athletes who requested transfer were enrolled at Har-Ber as of Dec. 2, 2017.
District policy states, “[t]here shall be no recruiting of students. Recruiting includes any manner of influencing of a student or the students parent(s) to transfer or move to another school attendance area.”
According to the AAA, “recruiting an athlete is a serious offense as it creates an unfair advantage.”
Text messages between Mr. Pounders and Coach Clark, released through an FOI request, show the two discussing the video.
“The video doesn’t prove anything,” Mr. Pounders said. “And now you have a copy of it.”
Coach Clark said, “Wow, that’s so stupid. It wasn’t even as bad as I remembered”
“No, it wasn’t,” Mr. Pounders said. “But it is funny as s.”
“Yes, it was,” Clark said.
“You need to meet with Rollins, Cleveland, and Stehlik and show them that video,” Mr. Pounders advises Coach Clark, “to let them know you have it and ask them what is wrong or illegal about it?!?!?!”
Reporters attempted to reach Stehlik 3 times, and each time he was unavailable for comment. These text messages also confirm that Coach Clark was indeed present at the burning.
In a letter dated Feb. 6, 2018 to Mr. Joenks from Lance Taylor, AAA executive director, he states “If the situation should change, an immediate review of the case would be necessary.”
“I’m just looking out for me,” Sanders said in a recorded interview.