Update: On Jan. 30 Montgomery County Public Schools determined Armon Nettey would be eligible to wrestle for Springbrook after reviewing change-of-residency paperwork Neki Nettey provided on Jan. 14 as part of her appeal of the waiver denial.

Neki Nettey walked into the Montgomery County Public Schools office lobby last week holding a green folder in one hand and her 4-year-old son’s hand in the other. Nettey did not have an appointment, but she told staff members she would not leave the building until she spoke with an MCPS official regarding a months-long case involving her 17-year-old son, Armon.

“I’m trying to get answers,” Nettey said. “I am his legal guardian, and I have a right to know what is going on. MCPS is not held to deadlines, and no one will talk to me.”

At the start of the school year, Armon transferred within the county from Sherwood to Springbrook. Armon was granted a Change of School Assignment (COSA) on the grounds that his family was experiencing a hardship; Neki is a single mother who started working later hours, so Armon now picks up his younger brother from a day care near Springbrook after school.

The transfer, however, affected Armon’s wrestling eligibility. He is not allowed to compete for Springbrook’s team until he is granted an athletic waiver by MCPS, a policy that is standard for all transfers seeking to participate in athletics before a one-year waiting period.

Armon is a promising recruit who was fielding interest letters from Division II and Division III schools before this season, so this is a pivotal time in his wrestling career. Beyond an opportunity for an athletic scholarship, he said wrestling has introduced him to a community.

In October, Neki submitted a request for an athletic waiver to Jeffrey Sullivan, the director of systemwide athletics. Nearly three weeks later, she received a reply: “The reasons you have given for transfer do not justify a waiver of the rule; therefore, I must deny your request.”

Sullivan declined further comment on the situation, as did seven other MCPS officials contacted for this story. Most referred all requests to Derek Turner, the MCPS communications officer. Turner eventually issued a statement after the county’s latest denial of a waiver for Armon.

“When students voluntarily pursue a transfer from one school to another, they are ineligible to participate in athletics for one year unless granted a waiver. While waivers are often granted, in cases where it becomes clear that a student athlete has pursued a change of school assignment to access a particular school’s athletic program, the one year waiting period remains in effect to ensure fairness to all student athletes and to preserve the integrity of the MCPS athletics program.

"That is what occurred in this situation,” the county said in a statement, noting Armon’s case is "pending before the Montgomery County Board of Education.”

Neki’s subsequent appeals to Montgomery County officials also were denied, leading the Nettey family to wonder why the same reasons for Armon’s COSA do not justify an athletic waiver.

It has been three months since Armon’s waiver was first denied. Neki has communicated with more than a dozen MCPS officials and says she has remained frustrated by the lack of communication and transparency in the process.

Meanwhile, as the wrestling calendar winds down, the clock is ticking on Armon’s senior season and his hopes for a scholarship.

“I’ve just been trying to keep my head up,” Armon said. “I’m going to practice and working hard. [My teammates] want to see me on the mat really bad also. A lot of people are worried about me.”

Waiting without answers

The one-year wait period for transfers — also in place in nearby Howard and Prince George’s counties — is intended to ensure fair competition, preventing students from transferring for purely athletic reasons.

The MCPS policy says athletic waivers may be granted in “exceptional circumstances,” but it is far more common for a waiver to be accepted than denied. MCPS has approved 96 percent of all athletic waiver requests over the past 15 years, according to data obtained by The Washington Post. Between the start of this school year and Nov. 22, three athletic waivers were denied, including Armon’s, of the 48 requested.

“I have been around Montgomery County sports for a very long time, and I am just flabbergasted,” said a parent of a Springbrook athlete, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the concern of repercussions. “I cannot believe [MCPS] would try to take steps to keep this kid from wrestling.

“The whole process is sort of strange to me,” the parent continued. “I don’t understand how someone can be approved by MCPS to change a school but denied access to athletics. But then they put the possibility of a waiver. It just adds a layer of subjectivity.”

MCPS officials declined to comment on specific cases but noted “MCPS high school students that have applied for COSAs and subsequently submitted athletic waivers were predominantly requesting to remain at their current school (following a family move out of the school attendance area) rather than requesting to transfer out of their school of assignment to a new school.”

While Armon’s case does not follow this pattern, he said the transfer was intended to help his family. Neki said she has been forthcoming with requested information, including her proof of residence, employer information, work schedule, Armon’s medical records and her children’s school information. She also said she has carefully followed MCPS protocol but has not received a clear answer about how MCPS came to its decision.

“I need to know what they’re looking for,” Neki said. “I was given no reason for why the waiver was initially denied.”

The Post filed a Maryland Public Information Act request for Sullivan’s communications related to Armon’s case. The email exchanges provided were heavily redacted with a statement from MCPS that said, “Disclosure of such emails would, in our view, discourage full and frank deliberations by MCPS decision makers and other Montgomery County agencies, which is contrary to the public interest.”

The Nettey family said it is growing increasingly concerned with how the case is affecting Armon. His grandmother, Reneé Coates, described Armon as “someone who has overcome so many obstacles.”

“He is a young, black male,” Coates said. “He’s adopted. He has a single mother. Wrestling has been his outlet.”

Coates is helping cover the costs of an attorney for the family. Although the family has not filed a lawsuit, the attorney has advised the family on how to proceed with its appeal. Coates said she is worried that the case is taking a toll on Armon’s mental and emotional health.

“Armon used to never smile, but because he was doing so well in wrestling, I could see this coming out of him,” Coates said. “And this is just fully injustice.”

But a chance to finish his high school career as a wrestler might never come. In late January, as Armon’s original case was pending, the Nettey family moved into a new residence in Silver Spring, which is located in the Springbrook attendance area. Neki submitted a second athletic waiver request to county officials, this time informing them of Armon’s updated address.

School system not budging

As Neki sat in the MCPS office building with the green folder, containing her lease, she received a call from Springbrook Principal Arthur Williams, who told her that Armon’s latest athletic waiver request had been denied.

Neki addressed Turner, the communications officer and the only person MCPS made available to her — in tears.

“You have destroyed my son’s hopes,” Neki said. “Nobody has anything to lose but him. My child is doing everything right, and he is being penalized.”

After leaving the office, Neki drove to Springbrook to meet Armon at an annual wrestling tournament hosted by the school. Coaches and school administrators stopped to speak with Neki and offer words of support. Armon remained in his warmup jacket and with his teammates, his eyes focused on the mat.

“[It’s] a big opportunity,” Armon said about last week’s two-day Grapple at the Brook event. “It’s a lot of good schools. A lot of good wrestlers from different areas. I wrestled here last year, and it was really fun.”

This past weekend, he could only watch from the sideline.

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