Bullied at Peoria school, he transferred. Now his mom is suing over football eligibility

Andy Kravetz
Journal Star
The Illinois High School Association has declared Peoria Heights High School freshman Cain McNair ineligible to play football this season after transferring from Peoria Notre Dame, where he also played football. He can practice with the Patriots and stand on the sidelines during games, but he can't play. His mother, Stephanie Caho, has filed a lawsuit against the IHSA to get the ruling changed.

PEORIA HEIGHTS − The mother of a student at Peoria Heights High School is trying to change the way the state judges eligibility for students who transfer from one high school to another through a lawsuit involving her son.

Stephanie Caho thinks her son is being improperly barred by the Illinois High School Association from playing freshman football at Peoria Heights after he transferred in late August from Peoria Notre Dame High School, where he was on its team. He dressed for the team's first game but didn't play, she said.

"How is Peoria Notre Dame at a disadvantage?" she asked, referring to the underlying principle that kids moving around could put other schools at a competitive disadvantage. "They don't even play each other. How are the 800-plus member schools of the IHSA at a disadvantage if Cain McNair, who was at Notre Dame for four days, leaves to go to his home district school?"

She knows that a lawsuit will not likely result in her son suiting up for the Patriots. But she said it's the principle of it.

"It’s not complicated. It doesn’t require a legal degree or me being a paralegal," she said. "It is quite literally a basic understanding of the English language. There are exceptions that make him eligible. He falls into that. It's as plain as day."

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Leaving Peoria Notre Dame

McNair started at Notre Dame on Aug. 20, his mother said, on an Empower Illinois scholarship that covered his tuition but little else. Within four days, he wanted to quit because of teasing and bullying, his mother said.

She didn't know until after the first football game, when he suited up but didn't play.

"He was noticeably upset because he didn’t get to play, which opened the door for me to talk to him," his mother said. "It's not about the game. He knows that. It is more that he didn't want to go to school there anymore.

"What we didn't know when we enrolled him is that it pays for tuition. There are all kinds of fees on top of that," she said.

Peoria Heights High School freshman Cain McNair and his mother, Stephanie Caho, have filed a lawsuit against an IHSA ruling barring him from playing football this season after he transferred from Peoria Notre Dame. The rule states that a student-athlete playing a particular sport for one school who transfers to another school is ineligible to play that sport for the remainder of the year.

Other students, she said, quickly picked up on the fact that he was there on a scholarship and made fun of him. She reached out to school officials to no avail, she said.

McNair was pulled out of school on Friday, Aug. 25, and enrolled in Peoria Heights the following Monday, she said.

Is he eligible?

Almost immediately, questions over his eligibility to participate in football and other sports emerged. Craig Anderson, the IHSA's executive director, sent a letter on Sept. 7 stating he was ineligible. His mother immediately appealed. On Sept. 12, a meeting was held via Microsoft Teams where she presented her case, but it was ultimately rejected.

Here's the issue: According to IHSA rules, once a student-athlete has participated in a sport with one school, then transfers to another, they are ineligible from that sport for the remainder of the school year. This only applies to football in this case. So, McNair would be allowed to join Peoria Heights basketball or wrestling teams for the 2022-23 season.

"It is as if the Board is saying that because 'C.M.' was bullied about his financial status, because he was racially harassed, because PND placed him in classes he was academically unprepared for without first consulting his family or even requesting records from his 8th-grade year ... he now is also ineligible to play his favorite sport? There exists no just or rational basis for such an unconscionable decision," the lawsuit states.

Caho thinks her son should get an exception to the rule, believing that of the four exceptions, her son qualifies for at least two of them. Those exceptions allow eligibility, she said, if a student is enrolling for the first time at the public school where they live. In this case, that did happen, she said, as McNair had gone to Holy Family School prior to attending Peoria Notre Dame.

Another exception is when there are "extenuating circumstances documented by the sending school’s principal or official representative," which she says should be well-documented through the emails and phone calls she made after learning of the abusive treatment her son described.

Dr. Susie Cicciarelli, Notre Dame's principal, said in a voicemail that she had not heard anything about the lawsuit, nor had the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, which oversees the school. A call to her asking to clarify some of the comments made by Caho was not returned.

Other exceptions include a change in a family's financial situation and transferring before a student becomes a sophomore. The lawsuit argues that the financial issue also applied, noting "that funds paid to PND by Empower Illinois did not cover 'C.M.’s registration, exorbitantly priced uniforms, or other expenses incurred at PND."

Cain McNair, a freshman at Peoria Heights High School, has been declared ineligible to play this season after transferring from Peoria Notre Dame. An IHSA rule bars student-athletes who play a sport at one school from playing that sport the rest of the year if they transfer to another school. McNair and his mother, Stephanie Caho, say there are exceptions to the rule and have filed a lawsuit in hopes of getting it changed.

Matt Troha, the IHSA's assistant executive director, said, "The matter you inquired about has advanced to litigation, so we are unable to comment at this time while the litigation is ongoing."

However, he did talk in general terms about how the appeal process works for such matters.

"On any ruling, the IHSA executive director rules based on the IHSA bylaws. While he does have some latitude, I would describe this ruling as being very black-and-white based on how the rule is written in the IHSA Handbook," Troha said. "A school or individual can appeal that ruling to our Board of Directors. Generally, successful appeals do one of two things: provide new information that is crucial to the situation or provide an extenuating circumstance that our board believes is worthy of eligibility, even if it would appear to fall outside the written definition of the bylaw."

Caho says that her son has clearly fallen into one of those exceptions. She admits there's no way the suit will be resolved prior to the end of football season, but this is about principle.

"If the court says I'm right, then they have unjustly denied (McNair) this opportunity that can't be replaced. The value of playing sports for your school is unmatched," she said. "But if I'm wrong and a child truly can be eliminated from an entire year of playing that one particular sport because they transferred due to situations completely out of their control, then how much will this adversely affect minorities and others who tend to move around a lot?"

Her son, McNair, still practices with the football team, but he can't play. He's still pursuing his goal of playing possibly in college.