PANAMA CITY BEACH, FL- Arnold High School and Bay District School officials have completed their own investigation into claims the school's football program violated rules. And Monday they refuted the finding of that independent investigation.
Arnold principal Keith Bland and Bay District School's director of operational support , Dr. John Haley, say the statements in the original report are false.
The Arnold football program was rocked by allegations that head coach James Hale, and former volunteer assistant coach, Mark Cowart, were giving improper benefits to student athletes.
The initial report, conducted by former Port St. Joe basketball coach Vern Epinette, accused coach Hale and some of his assistants of providing players rides to school, a free condo to stay in, and gift cards for good play on the field.
2 former Arnold students, who have since transferred to Bay High, also said they did not take the required classes to graduate.
Arnold Principal Keith Bland said, "Transcripts show that students took the proper classes and we also have statements from district staff that came in to do a review of the students transcripts to show that they did take the proper course work."
School district officials attribute the original claim to Epinette's not understanding Arnold's course credit system. They say he's since issued a retraction, saying he was mistaken about the students grades. The district also says it did not find any instance of players or their families living in a free condo.
"As far as improper housing I was made aware of it back at the start of the summer, and I looked into it myself. Found no evidence of anything occurring. Hence the statements you have today," Bland added.
Former volunteer assistant Mark Cowart, who resigned amid the allegations, said in a statement that he never gave any players or their families a free condo to stay in, and a player's family members accused of getting a free condo also says that's a false claim. School and district officials say they're reviewing policies on giving students and athletes gift cards for good performances.
"If it gets to being an excessive issue or it gets to a point where it's going to jeopardize his college eligibility of high school eligibility then it definitely needs to stop," Bland said.
The school district's report will now go to the Florida High School Athletic Association.
Dr. Haley said, "We had to investigate and analyze what was turned in. You can't just accept whatever is turned into you. The students deserve that. I think the school, the reputation and the integrity of the school, they deserve that."
Coach James Hale and his wife, Arnold athletic director Julie Hale issued a joint statement Monday, saying the false allegations have hurt their family and players, and they're pleased to have the issue put to rest.
Bland says he expects to turn in that report to the FHSAA in the next couple of weeks.
A copy of the report and documents is attached to this story.