Howard University said Wednesday that it is conducting an internal investigation into possible NCAA violations committed by its athletic department.

In an e-mail, school spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton said the school has “temporarily withheld a number of student-athletes from competition as a self-imposed action. Most teams will compete as scheduled.”

Hamilton did not immediately say how many student-athletes were involved or on what teams. “We are working diligently to fully resolve this matter as quickly as possible,” she said. “In order to protect the integrity of this review, we are unable to share additional details at this time.”

According to a Howard softball player, the school is investigating the practice by which some of its student-athletes acquire their textbooks. The student said some athletes apparently were pocketing the difference between the cost of their textbooks and their textbook allowance.

The softball player and a former Howard football player, who both requested anonymity so they could speak freely without fear of repercussion, said this was a common practice for all of the school’s athletic teams.

Students study in the Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library on the campus of Howard University before finals in 2010. (Doug Kapustin/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

“It’s been going on for a long time,” the softball player said. “A good majority of the athletes were taking advantage of this. There were some people who were saving the money. They didn’t spend it. Or some would go buy frivolous things, nothing that relates to school. Some people bought books and other school supplies.”

An Atlantic Coast Conference compliance officer contacted for this story said student-athletes are never supposed to handle funds used to purchase textbooks, and that athletic department officials usually pay for a student-athlete’s books. The compliance officer, who asked not to be identified because he did not know the facts of Howard’s situation, said the NCAA could view these violations as a lack of institutional control on Howard’s part. Howard plays in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Wednesday afternoon, the Washington City Paper reported on its Web site that the school had issued a statement saying its had “temporarily suspended athletic competition.” But the Howard football and softball teams team were practicing at Greene Stadium later in the afternoon.

A person familiar with the situation said the football program is not currently affected by the investigation.

At Howard, student-athletes whose scholarships provide for textbooks are alerted by athletic department officials when to pick up their books for a given semester at the university bookstore. An athletics department compliance officer oversees the process at the bookstore and makes sure the student-athletes get the books they need. At a later date, the student-athletes are allowed to pick up a check at a university administration building for the remaining textbook allowance that was written into their scholarship.

The NCAA allows its member schools to pay for any required books a student-athlete needs for their classes. Schools can provide student-athletes with cash to pay for those books, so long as the amount is equal to the actual cost of the books. Student-athletes who are found to be profiting from textbook purchases would be deemed ineligible by the NCAA until they pay back the benefit they received.

According to the NCAA, a school is found to demonstrate a lack of institutional control if it fails to maintain adequate compliance measures. Such a determination could lead the NCAA to levy severe penalties.

Another ACC compliance officer confirmed that schools cannot pay students the balance of the funds allotted to them in their scholarships.

The Howard softball player said some of the seniors on the team were told the violations dated from when they were freshmen.

Dwight Datcher, who was Howard’s athletic director when the softball team’s seniors were freshmen, denied in a telephone interview that such a system existed while he was in charge from January 2006 through August 2009. Datcher said the textbook-procurement system under his watch complied with NCAA regulations.

“If they can pull that out, then they certainly can prove that,” Datcher said of the investigation. “But I don’t think they can. They might have thought it and somebody’s talking it, but they can’t pull anything out like that because we didn’t even do vouchers the same way they’re doing them now.”

Howard, whose teams compete at the Division I level, had three athletic events scheduled for this week. The women’s tennis team was scheduled to face Navy on Thursday and travel to Towson on Saturday. The softball team was slated to play at Coppin State on Friday. Only two men’s teams (tennis and track and field) and three women’s teams (tennis, lacrosse and track and field) compete in the spring for the Bison.

A Navy athletics spokesman said Wednesday night that the academy’s women’s tennis coaches had not heard from Howard whether Thursday’s matches would take place.

The Howard women’s lacrosse team canceled its last two games, against Longwood on Friday and against Liberty on Sunday. Both the Longwood and Liberty Web sites say the games were canceled by Howard, which was to host both contests.

Howard athletics has faced questions surrounding the eligibility of its athletes in the past. In December 1991, the NCAA placed the school’s athletic programs on two years’ probation and banned the football team from postseason play in 1992 because of eligibility violations committed under former football coach Willie Jeffries.

“This was a classic case of the absence of university control,” the NCAA committee on infractions said at the time.

In 2008, the Bison football team played its season opener without 26 players because of eligibility issues, and 19 missed the second game. In 2011, eight Howard teams were subject to NCAA penalties for poor classroom performance after they failed to meet the baseline score on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), which measures how well each team stacks up in the classroom over a four-year period. Two Howard teams — football and women’s lacrosse — were assessed immediate penalties in the form of scholarship reductions, and the men’s soccer, men’s basketball, men’s outdoor and indoor track, men’s swimming and men’s cross-country programs all were given APR scores below the threshold.

Howard’s football team was also docked 2.91 scholarships in 2008 because it did not meet the NCAA’s minimum APR standard.

Staff writer Kathy Orton contributed to this report.