BREAKING: Ohio Dept. of Ed Releases Bishop Sycamore Report, Asks Attorney General to Investigate But Says School Can Continue to Operate

Syndication: USA TODAY
Shane Flanigan via Imagn Content Services, LLC

An extensive report detailing an investigation by the Ohio Department of Education into Bishop Sycamore, a purported school that drew widespread attention after a nationally televised football game on ESPN ended with a recommendation that the school be investigated by the Ohio Attorney General.

“Consultation with the Attorney General is warranted regarding a potential legal action against Bishop Sycamore High School to prevent the school from continuing to operate without meeting the minimum standards for non-chartered, non-tax supported schools,” according to the report.

The recommendation comes after the Department of Education concluded that it has no enforcement power over the school, which many say is not a real school, following similar allegations from ESPN broadcasters during a controversial matchup with IMG on national television.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued this statement:

This report confirms numerous disturbing allegations regarding Bishop Sycamore. There is no evidence that the ‘school’ enrolled students this year, had a physical location for classes to meet, employed teachers, nor offered any academic program meeting minimum standards. Ohio families should be able to count on the fact that our schools educate students and don’t exist in name only as a vehicle to play high school sports. When an Ohio student goes to school, they deserve a quality education to prepare them for success in the future. I am today asking Attorney General Yost and other offices with jurisdiction to determine whether the alleged deception by Bishop Sycamore violated any civil or criminal laws. I intend to work with the Department of Education and legislative leaders to implement the recommendations contained in this thorough report.”

Bishop Sycamore is listed in Ohio as a non-chartered, non-taxed school which the report indicates to be a loophole that many are exploiting to be able to run traveling football programs with no regulation from the state.

The report also drew attention to the weaknesses in Ohio law that allows non-chartered, non-tax supported schools to operate with little to no regulation. The Department concluded that schools that do not receive taxpayer money are not regulated by the state and schools that have firmly held religious beliefs may operate without any regulation besides an annual paperwork requirement.

While the Department said it could not figure out whether Bishop Sycamore had any closely held religious beliefs, it still did not have the power to regulate or discipline the school even if it did not meet the minimum requirements under state law.

“It appears that Bishop Sycamore does not have truly held religious beliefs that led the school to pursue a course as a non-chartered, non-tax supported school. It appears instead that Bishop Sycamore took this route because it could become established merely by submitting a form and some accompanying documents. All that was left was to assemble players for the next high school football powerhouse.”

Until legislators change the law, it appears the Department of Education cannot do anything except not include Bishop Sycamore on its annual list of non-chartered, non-taxed schools. The list is a formality that helps parents know the school exists but carries little other purpose.

The report shows that as many as 400 schools carry the distinction of non-taxed, non-chartered schools that lack state regulation and evade state enforcement power. It called for widespread reform under Ohio law to prevent schools like Bishop Sycamore from operating without meeting educational requirements.

The investigation recommends the attorney general investigate Bishop Sycamore to see if there is any liability in other areas of the law, including criminal or civil that may fall under consumer protection laws. Sources say the recommendation will allow the Department of Education to share the information it uncovered during the investigation, including allegations of non-payment to school providers and promises made to parents that may not have been fulfilled to see if there is criminal liability for fraud.

The investigation also concluded that Bishop Sycamore was operating and competing in football games on the high school circuit even before its annual registration was approved and before it was placed on the state list of non-taxed, non-chartered schools.

The investigation also found that Bishop Sycamore misrepresented its instructional activities and educational structure. It listed the following findings:

Bishop Sycamore was not open for instruction for the requisite hours for the 2020-2021 school year.

Students’ enrollment in Bishop Sycamore High School was not reported to the treasurer of the respective school districts of residence for the 2020-2021 and the 2021-2022 school year.

The Department was unable to confirm that Bishop Sycamore High School verifies that teachers and administrators meet the requirements.

The Department was unable to verify Bishop Sycamore High School’s representation that it has provided the required courses of study for its students.

The Department was unable to identify any criteria used by Bishop Sycamore High School to promote students from grade to grade.

The Department was unable to confirm whether Bishop Sycamore High School ensured compliance with appropriate state and local health, fire, and safety laws.

The report went on to say that while Bishop Sycamore did not meet the minimum operating standards required by Ohio law, the law “does not give the Department authority to sanction or penalize schools like Bishop Sycamore for failure to meet the minimum operating standards”

“As a non-chartered, non-tax supported school, Bishop Sycamore does not hold a charter to revoke. And as a school that does not receive public funds, the Department is unable to withhold funding from the school for failing to comply with the minimum operating standards.”

“Ohio law likewise provides no authority for the Department to perform any oversight or enforcement of the minimum requirements for non-chartered, non-tax supported schools…”

Under Ohio law as it currently stands, Bishop Sycamore can continue to operate, according to the investigative report.

“There does not appear to be any authority for the Department to unilaterally prevent Bishop Sycamore High School from operating. Again, the school holds no charter to revoke and the rule that governs these types of schools does not provide the Department with authority to prohibit the school from operating.”

In a stunning revelation, the report said that it’s also unlikely anyone can sue to try to stop Bishop Sycamore from operating because a string of court cases has held that the only ” way to keep children from attending a non-chartered, non-tax supported school that fails to meet the minimum standards is, cruelly, to prosecute their parents.”

The report sheds light on the failures of Department of Education staffers who failed to elevate concerns about the school to higher authorities despite a string of reports and warnings. In fact, the Department, ultimately added Bishop Sycamore to its annual list as being certified, despite its failure to meet the requirements to be added to such a list. This reinforced to parents the illusion that the school was registered and there was some state oversight, although there was not.

“Some may question why the Department did not take further action when it received inquiries about the school. Certainly, staff could have raised the issue further to senior leadership at the Department to identify other potential means of addressing the concerns. The Department should review its internal procedures and ensure they address when and how to escalate concerns from an office to senior leadership.”

The crux of the report is devoted to recommending a new legal framework be enacted by legislators in Ohio to clamp down on the number of schools using non-chartered, non-taxed status to operate and evade state regulation, many of them are traveling football programs similar to Bishop Sycamore.

The story also shed a massive light on the underground high school football scene. Central to it is the idea of reclassification which allows high school students who are over the age of 18 to spend an extra year taking advantage of post-grad programs to either help raise their GPAs, or get in an extra year of football missed due to personal troubles or the pandemic. Reclassifying is an accepted practice by the NCAA which allows four years of high school football and many athletes choose this practice instead of going to Junior College. Years spent in Junior College count toward the four years of sports eligibility at a college program. Therefore, many students who have graduated high school and missed a year of high school sports spend an extra year attending high school programs to compete and hone their skills to get better college offers, and still play four years of college sports.

However, the practice is controversial, with many saying that some students use it to game the system and receive an unfair advantage in getting into D1 programs, edging younger students out.

It appears that many football programs across the country are started by the fathers of football players and other athletes to give their kids an advantage to get more exposure, better offers and not have to attend expensive schools like IMG, which charges upwards of 60-90k a year for its post-grad programs. Some say, they are doing nothing different than an IMG who has the resources for the same post-grad program. Bishop Sycamore’ controversial former head coach Roy Johnson, who came under fire after the ESPN televised game and was fired, claimed he was giving opportunities to kids who missed a year of football due to personal problems or covid and who could not afford to attend a football powerhouse like an IMG.

However, others say there is a clear difference between a school like IMG, with infrastructure, policies, staff and academic programs and a Bishop Sycamore which online offerings for those who need it but spends the bulk of its attention on its football program. The outstanding debts and lack of stable housing for students has also drawn ire from parents who put their children in the Bishop Sycamore program expecting a professional operation.

Despite the scandal and the questionable tactics by the school’s owners, many kids on the Bishop Sycamore team confirm they received advantages from the program including more offers, some of them D1. Despite numerous false reports that none of the players on Bishop Sycamore were D1 caliber, League of Justice found the opposite to be true, many were talented football players and had multiple college level offers. When matched up against the best high school football program in the country, the team took a pretty big hit reputation wise.

Similarly, reports surfaced that said Bishop Sycamore’s players were in their 20s and had graduated high school long ago. League of Justice also found out that the oldest player appeared to be 19 or 20 and many had reclassified either due to financial reasons, academic reasons or a missed year of football due to COVID, a practice exercised by many football students attending post-grad football programs across the country.

The Department of Education’s says its investigation was hampered by a lack of cooperation by the owners and coaches at Bishop Sycamore and conflicting statements in the media, according to the report.

“The public statements about the school have been consistently inconsistent. The current head coach denies Bishop Sycamore’s status as a school, then the school files another annual certification with the Department. Andre Peterson, the administrator of the school, was quoted as saying there were around 80 students in the school, 48 yet the school’s forms disclose only three students for one year and one student for the following year. This pattern of misdirection leaves one concerned about the truth regarding the school’s operations.”

It went on to say:

“Further, Bishop Sycamore officials were given the opportunity to provide additional information to demonstrate the school’s legitimacy and compliance. They declined to do so. Without the clarification from the school to prove its compliance, common sense leads one to the most obvious explanation: Bishop Sycamore is not a school as it purports on paper to be.”

The report indicated that the students were victims in the national fallout over the school.

“Education provides an opportunity for each child to achieve their personal ambitions and dreams and to contribute to their neighbors and community. Each child in Ohio is entitled to an education of high quality. That includes the children at Bishop Sycamore. Indeed, each child at Bishop Sycamore deserves better.”

The State Superintendent released this statement in response to the report:

“All students should receive a quality education. Anytime students fail to receive the quality education they need and deserve, we want to fully investigate the situation to learn what we can do to prevent it from happening ever again. In light of what we’ve learned about Bishop Sycamore, we’ve identified steps we can and will take that we believe will make it more difficult for something like this to reoccur. Our report also includes a wider list of recommendations that, while they will require broader support to implement, could prevent a repeat of Bishop Sycamore entirely. Ultimately, we remain committed to doing everything we can to ensure each of our students is challenged, prepared and empowered to reach their full potential.”

The rest of the reports recommendations are listed below:

  • Recommendation No. 1: Do not include Bishop Sycamore High School on the list of non-chartered, non-tax supported schools for the 2021-2022 school year.
  • Recommendation No. 2: Consult with the Attorney General regarding potential legal action against Bishop Sycamore High School.
  • Recommendation No. 3: Require non-chartered, non-tax supported schools to submit a copy of their annual report, as required by OAC 3301-35-08, to the Department by July 31 (instead of September 30). In moving up the deadline, the Department would have an opportunity to try to address suspected issues of noncompliance before the first day of school. Additionally, moving up the deadline helps parents in making decisions about their children’s education before school begins.
  • Recommendation No. 4: Amend the Revised Code to authorize the Department to monitor and enforce non-chartered, non-tax supported schools’ compliance with the minimum standards of OAC 3301-35-08 and require such schools to comply with the Department’s investigation and any corrective action required by the Department.
  • Recommendation No. 5: Require the Department to publish a list of non- chartered, non-tax supported schools that registered with the Department by filing the report required by OAC 3301-35-08 and allow the Department to remove schools from the list for failure to comply with the minimum standards and relevant law. Requiring the Department to prepare and maintain such a list provides another measure of accountability and transparency, and the list can assure parents when evaluating schools and making decisions about their children’s education.
  • Recommendation No. 6: Clarify that a non-chartered, non-tax supported school is prohibited from operating unless the school is registered with the Department and included on the Department’s list of non-chartered, non-tax supported schools for that school year.
  • Recommendation No. 7: For schools that have been removed from the list and seek to register in a future school year, authorize the Department to verify the schools’ ability to comply with the minimum standards before registering.The report includes these recommendations with the goal of addressing not only the present situation involving Bishop Sycamore High School, but also future circumstances to prevent the continued operation of non-chartered, non-tax supported schools that fail to meet the minimum standards.

The report also mentions Christians of Faith Academy, which was run by Bishop Sycamore’s former head coach Roy Johnson in the state of Ohio, prior to Bishop Sycamore’s creation. The report details how COF Academy was shut down prior to Johnson launching Bishop Sycamore.

“In 2018, COF Academy used the non-chartered, non-tax supported school route to field a football team that played an ambitious schedule against other high schools…After media requests to the Department about COF Academy’s football team and the school’s status, the Department conducted unannounced site visits of the school. Department staff found an old church and a newer community center, but the reverend of the church denied knowing about COF Academy or of Johnson being at the location. Similarly, there was no signage at the location indicating COF Academy was located there…Following the visit, the Department issued a notice dated October 18, 2018, to COF Academy that the school would be removed from the 2018-2019 list of non-chartered, non-tax supported schools. The hearing officer concluded that the school was “not open for instruction and had no pupils in attendance” and, therefore, failed to meet the minimum standards for non-chartered, non-tax supported schools.”

The report said Bishop Sycamore’s owner Andre Peterson teamed up with Roy Johnson to launch Bishop Sycamore after COF Academy was shut down by the state because he wanted to help his son compete against big football programs across the country.

“Peterson was a former youth and high school coach and an ordained minister. Peterson was reported to have said that he “liked the concept of [the school]” and that he wanted his son “to get the opportunity to play against some of the best competition – not just in Ohio but around the country.”

The report details how Bishop Sycamore played in football games while waiting to find out if it had been approved to be on the state’s list of non-chartered, non-taxed schools and details its constantly changing locations and educational partners. The report found that many partners of Bishop Sycamore abandoned the school after bills went unpaid.

In terms of the operations of the school, the department found that they moved from one address to another with little proof of consistent operations.

Below are select excerpts from the report detailing Bishop Sycamore’s activities during the 2020-2021 football years and the Department’s efforts to track whether it met the state’s minimum requirements to be listed as a non-taxed, non-chartered school:

“Sue Cosmo, Director of the Department’s Office of Nonpublic Educational Options, directed her staff to attempt to contact the school and identify its address. Staff reported back that there was no phone number or address on the school’s website, only a vague representation that the school was located between Bexley and Columbus. Staff found that under the “Students” tab on the school’s website to enroll, the user was directed to the Ed Options Virtual School. Department staff contacted Ed Options but was informed that Bishop Sycamore was not a client of the virtual school.

Staff found Bishop Sycamore’s football team on the high school sports website MaxPreps, which listed an address of 2759 Winchester Pike in Columbus. After searching the address online, staff reported that the Google Street view for the address was a parking lot and a strip mall. With little more information to go on at the time, staff did not review any further.

YouthBuild reportedly ended the relationship with Bishop Sycamore after the community school learned that Bishop Sycamore players had been evicted from where they had been staying and after the school received an invoice for roughly $6,000 for football uniforms and equipment that had not been approved by the community school’s governing board. The Post reported that YouthBuild sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bishop Sycamore after Bishop Sycamore continued referencing an affiliation with YouthBuild, including on the MaxPreps website.

The school represented that it was partnering with Advancing Sciences Worldwide and Innovation Science and Education. The school proclaims further: “With ISE [sic] innovative education platform and ASW the Bishop Sycamore partnership makes this High School one of the best academic institutions in the country.

The staff and advisory board were listed on page 12 of the report. Those listed were: Carinne Blackwell, Katrina Jarrett, Jill Collins, Tim Dewberry, Andre Peterson, Deryck Richardson, and Joshua Harris. Across from each name are what appear to be acronyms of universities (i.e., ODU, OSU, YSU, and BGSU).

Next, Bishop Sycamore notified the Department on September 8 that the building it had been leasing would not be available due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The school asked if it could use an alternate address for the “district HQ” because “all of [its] students will be completely online following the Columbus City Schools pandemic education response model.” Department staff asked whether the school was planning on providing remote learning for the entire school year. The school indicated only that it intended to have a new address by the time students returned to in-person learning

By late October of 2020, having not received updated information from Bishop Sycamore, the Department had yet to add the school’s name to the 2020-2021 list of non-chartered, non-tax supported schools. Nevertheless, on October 26, 2020, Andre Peterson posted on his Twitter account, @CoachAndrePete1, that “2021 Bishop Sycamore is going to be Epic!!!!” Peterson’s Coach Andre Peterson Twitter profile includes that he is “Director,” “Coach Bishop Sycamore Centurions,” and “Preacher of the Gospel.”

The school followed up with Department staff on December 26, 2020, and January 4, 2021, asking what actions the school needed to take to be included on the list of schools. Staff from the Office of Nonpublic Educational Options informed Cosmo that they spoke with Roy Johnson, formerly of COF Academy, who explained that he was now affiliated with Bishop Sycamore. Johnson – reportedly, the head coach of the Bishop Sycamore football team – told staff that Bishop Sycamore students were taking classes through APEX, an online learning platform. While staff members continued to express concerns about the school’s legitimacy, they also questioned whether the Department had authority to take any action since the school was representing in its filings that it was following the minimum standards for non- chartered, non-tax supported schools.

The school finally provided a new address on January 19, 2021, which was a post office box in Columbus. Staff responded by asking for the physical location of the school where students attend. Bishop Sycamore provided an address of 3599 Chiller Lane, Columbus, Ohio 43219, which is the address of the Resolute Athletic Complex, which is described on its website as “central Ohio’s premier sports center for lacrosse, indoor soccer, athletic training, and more.” Despite providing a physical address, the school expressed that its preference was to have the post office box listed as its address on the list of non-chartered, non-tax supported schools. Staff identified the athletic complex as the building that Bishop Sycamore represented as the location of the school. Staff also received an email from Andre Peterson asking for a call at staff’s “earliest convenience.” He asked staff to provide the date and time of the call. Peterson reiterated that Bishop Sycamore had a physical address, and, in support of the preference to list a post office box, he mentioned that several schools were included on the list with a post office box for the address of the schools.

Having received a new address and this clarifying information, on February 10, 2021, the Department issued a letter acknowledging that Bishop Sycamore High School would be included on the list of non-chartered, non-tax supported schools for the 2020-2021 school year and that the list on the website would be updated to reflect the school’s addition.

In response to this notification and despite its persistence in seeking inclusion on the list, the school next asked the Department if it was necessary for its name to be listed publicly on the Department’s website. Staff responded that the Department would continue to list the school because employers and post-secondary institutions use the list to verify the school’s operation.

Bishop Sycamore’s 2021 football season ended ignominiously on Sunday, August 29, 2021, on national television. The school’s team lost 58-0 to high school football powerhouse IMG Academy from Bradenton, Florida, and, in the lopsided loss, ignited a national discussion about how such a mismatched contest came to be and whether it was safe for teams of such different calibers to compete. These discussions also led to questions about whether Bishop Sycamore had accurately portrayed itself to game organizers and to ESPN in the lead up to the network’s decision to broadcast the game. In fact, reports began to emerge that the school had played another football game in a suburb of Pittsburgh as recently as Friday, August 27 – less than 48 hours before the game on Sunday against IMG Academy – an action that raised concerns about whether Bishop Sycamore’s players had been afforded sufficient time to rest and recover between games

In response, the Department received a September 9 letter from attorney Byron L. Potts, who informed the Department that he represented B.S.F. Bishop Sycamore Foundation and Damond and Brandy Porter.35 Mr. Potts explained that his clients have “no affiliation with B.S.F. Bishop Sycamore High School.”36 Nevertheless, Mr. Potts requested “all of the records pertaining to Bishop Sycamore High School.” Mr. Potts concluded his letter by advising that his clients “have no intention to submit the documents that you requested in your letter for inclusion on the non-chartered, non- tax supported school list for [the 2021-2022 school year] or any other year.”

On September 17, 2021, the Department sent a second notice to the school, to the attention of R. Andre Peterson, at 7637 Swindon Street, Blacklick, Ohio 43004, which the Department has reason to believe is Peterson’s residence. The letter requested the same documents as requested in the September 3 letters. The school’s deadline to submit the documents in response to the second notice was September 24, 2021.

The Department did not receive the requested documents by the September 24 deadline. In fact, as of the date of this report, the school has not submitted the requested documents to the Department. But on September 30, 2021, at 12:59 a.m., the school emailed the Department its annual certification materials for inclusion on the non-chartered, non-tax supported schools list for the 2021-2022 school year, as well as a seven-page annual report for the school .

Additionally, Peterson shared that the school provides religious study, but he said the study was not reflected on transcripts. He mentioned that the name of Bishop Sycamore was influenced by a story from the biblical Gospel of Luke where a man named Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree in order to be noticed by Jesus, who was passing through the town.40 Peterson said it was his favorite story in the Bible. He explained that the title of Bishop was included in the school’s name because it means “overseer.”

The minimum standards in OAC 3301-35-08 are intended to apply to schools for which compliance with the minimum operating standards for other chartered nonpublic schools would require the schools to violate their truly held beliefs. The challenge for the Department in this case is that schools are not required to submit any description of their truly held religious beliefs to the Department. On the annual certification report for the 2020-2021 school year, Bishop Sycamore checked the box to indicate that the school was “not chartered or seeking a charter due to truly held religious beliefs.” The school also checked the subsequent box to indicate that it had given written statements of its beliefs to parents. The Department’s annual certification report form for the 2021-2022 school year does not include the prompts regarding the school’s truly held religious beliefs and its written statement to parents about the beliefs.

Peterson’s statements suggest that the school has religious beliefs, but the Department is unable to identify with specificity what those religious beliefs are. And without identifying the school’s religious beliefs, the Department could not begin to ascertain whether those religious beliefs are truly held.”

The full report of the Department of Education’s investigation can be accessed HERE.