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NCISAA investigating claims of promised tuition for football players, recruiting at Village Christian

March 2, 2019

The N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association has opened an investigation into allegations that Village Christian Academy used undue influence and promises of free tuition to football players who transferred to the school prior to its 2018 NCISAA state championship.

At least four student-athletes transferred from Athens Drive High School in Raleigh to the private school in Fayetteville prior to the 2018 football season. In recent weeks, two of those students -- Isaiah Henderson and Geo Cannon -- say they transferred back to Athens Drive after being told they could not continue attending classes at Village Christian because their tuition had not been paid.

Henderson and Cannon’s families say school officials told them their tuition would be covered if they enrolled at Village Christian. It wasn’t until the football season was ending that the families began to get word that there was an issue with the tuition payments.

According to the school’s website, Village Christian Academy charges $6,550 per year for high school tuition. It can be paid in monthly installments for 10 or 12 months. There are other fees such as a $390 student resource fee, $100 application fee and $250 new student registration fee, as well as breakfast and lunch charges.

“We have formed a subcommittee for the basis of investigating the allegations raised in an appeal to our committee,” Village Christian said on Feb. 27 in a written statement to HighSchoolOT.com through committee member Lee Boughman. “We take the allegations very seriously. At this time, we would have no further comments.”

In a separate email on Feb. 28, Boughman said, “It would not be appropriate for us to comment while the NCISAA conducts its investigation.”

Reached by phone on Friday, Village Christian football coach Emerson Martin said there were two sides to every story, but he declined to comment further.

The NCISAA, a voluntary organization that governs high school sports for many private schools in the state, declined to comment.

NCISAA-member schools agree to follow a strict policy about financial aid and scholarships. According to the NCISAA Handbook, “The NCISAA operates under the basic premise that student athletes do not receive preferential treatment in awarding of financial aid from any member school. While the NCISAA understands that every school has individual criteria in the distribution of aid, no player may receive any form of financial aid for athletic participation.”

The NCISAA also prohibits recruiting for athletic purposes.

“A member school shall not actively recruit athletes to play sports at their schools,” the NCISAA Handbook reads. “A student may not participate in athletics if the student is transferring after undue influence.”

Henderson said he was recruited to the school after meeting Martin at an East Carolina football camp on June 3.

“It was undue influence. He recruited me there. I told him multiple times in a month … I’m not going to be able to attend,” Henderson said, citing the cost per month to attend the school.

“They kept giving me proposals. First time it was like they’ll help, but said they couldn’t do it all. Then they said, ‘We need you to bring five dollars every day,’ and I was like, ‘That’s still probably too much for my family.’ Then that’s when they said they’ll pay it full,” Henderson recalled.

Cannon said he did not feel like he was recruited to the program. He decided he wanted to attend Village Christian just before the fall semester started because several of his friends had left Athens Drive for the school. He did, however, share many of the same concerns about money.

“When I first got there, nobody was paying, so once they found out about that and I told them my situation and stuff, that’s when his wife and [Emerson Martin] were saying they were going to pay for it,” Cannon said.

Both families say they were never asked for a tuition payment through most of the football season. It wasn’t until football season was ending that they realized something was wrong. In November, the football team won the NCISAA Division-III football state championship. In January, the school stopped allowing Henderson and Cannon to attend class.

Ila Stancil, Isaiah Henderson’s mother, said she got the first letter indicating a past due balance for Isaiah’s tuition on Oct. 30. She said the letter stated if the balance wasn’t paid by Nov. 1, Isaiah would not be allowed to return to school. Stancil said she texted Emerson Martin and assistant coach Brian McCrimmon after receiving the letter to find out what had happened to the tuition arrangement.

“They said, ‘Don’t worry about nothing,’” Stancil said.

That text message led to a meeting at a Raleigh Starbucks on Nov. 4 with Stancil, her husband, Dirul Henderson, Emerson Martin and his wife, Keschia.

Henderson and Stancil shared a video recording of the meeting with HighSchoolOT.com.

“If it wasn’t for us going through a similar situation with our oldest son, we would not have recorded what little bit of proof we have in order to say this was done to us,” Dirul Henderson said.

The recording, which is broken up into five separate pieces, none longer than just over four minutes, begins with Emerson Martin speaking about the coaches giving up their coaching stipends. He said his coaching staff gave up their stipends and gave the money to Keith, the nickname of McCrimmon.

“So Keith is supposed to be using that money to divide it up and it ended up being like $4,000, but it got taxed, so it’s like 3,000 something dollars. He is supposed to divide that up among the four kids,” Emerson Martin said in the recording.

The Henderson family says the coaches intended to use that money to pay for tuition for four student-athletes on the football team. The family met with the Martins after Isaiah Henderson decided it might be best to leave Village Christian and return to Athens Drive when tuition payments were not made on time.

During the meeting at Starbucks, Dirul Henderson expressed his concerns about the payments not being submitted on time, which meant his son could not attend class.

“But this is the thing, I’ve already straightened it out and we went out on a limb. I told them, ‘Look, I want him here.’ The principal wants him there, the superintendent wants him there, so regardless of what has been said to them, that is why I told them to come to school,” Emerson Martin said in the recorded video from Nov. 4. “They need to be at school, so this is the thing, there are people at the school, teachers and everybody willing to help out Isaiah, but he gotta show up.”

The meeting took place five days before Village Christian’s game against Harrells Christian Academy in the semifinals. One day after the meeting, on Nov. 5, Stancil received an email from Wanda Sutton, the accounts receivable supervisor at Village Christian, stating that McCrimmon had paid the $510 balance on Isaiah Henderson’s tuition. Isaiah Henderson went on to play in the semifinal game and scored one touchdown, according to MaxPreps.

Village Christian won the state championship the following week. According to the Henderson family, there was no additional correspondence about missing payments through the end of 2018.

After the turn of the year, Isaiah Henderson returned to class at Village Christian, but it did not take long for his family to receive notification of past due balances.

On Jan. 10, Stancil received an email from the school stating there was a past due balance of $1,174.50. The email asked the balance be paid by Jan. 16, but Isaiah Henderson remained in class through Jan. 26. It was not the last time he went to the school though.

“To be honest, it became an issue out of nowhere,” Isaiah said.

Isaiah Henderson missed school on Jan. 28, but the next day he went to school with Cannon. The two students say they were not allowed to attend class though because both had past due balances. Both students were waiting for their tuitions to be covered by the school.

“[Emerson Martin] called our name right before we walked in (to the school) and we got in the van and he was like, ‘I’m going to take y’all to breakfast.’ Then we went to breakfast and he was like, ‘Y’all can’t come today, the bill’s coming in tomorrow,’” Isaiah recalled. “He just kept saying that for the next two days, so we kept coming.”

Both Cannon and Isaiah showed up to school on Jan. 30 and Jan. 31, but they didn’t attend class. Instead, both students sat in Emerson Martin’s classroom while they were repeatedly promised payments would be made.

“I think he was trying to probably hide it from our parents or something, but he just kept telling us that the church or something that he got is going to pay for it tomorrow,” Isaiah said.

Dirul Henderson and Stancil said Emerson Martin and his wife talked about different ways to pay for tuition. It included fundraising, fish fries, selling books and a church organization. Cannon said mowing grass was also mentioned.

Neither Isaiah Henderson nor Cannon showed up to class on Friday, Feb. 1, but both claim Emerson Martin texted them and told them to come to school on Monday. Stancil received an email from Keschia Martin the same morning instructing her to reapply to the school for Isaiah.

On Monday morning, Feb. 4, when Isaiah and Cannon arrived at Village Christian, the students claim the superintendent of the school, Tom Rider, turned them away.

“We went to his office and he explained to us that due to our bills being overdue and all these things, he has no choice, it’s law that we can’t come back,” Isaiah said.

The same day, Keschia Martin emailed Stancil again: “Someone needs to come to the school on Isaiah’s behalf tomorrow. A parent. The tuition has been pretty much covered. it’s not about the money they need to know his parents are being involved. He’s had a lot of D1 coaches to come and see him. UNC even said that they are looking to make an offer soon. Can someone be there tomorrow. He has worked really hard and he has soooo many options available to him for college. Please let me know if you will be able to come.”

Stancil and her husband went to the school the next day and met with principal Theresa Clark and Rider. Despite the original email from Keschia Martin stating the meeting was not about money, the parents were told they needed to pay more than $1,100 by Feb. 8 or their son would be removed from the school.

“So we were kind of blindsided walking into that office,” Dirul Henderson said. “We addressed the school, we told the principal and superintendent the promises that were made to us related to our son.”

It was after this meeting the school appointed a subcommittee to look into the allegations.

Isaiah Henderson withdrew from Village Christian Academy and, after missing about three weeks of school, enrolled again at Athens Drive. Cannon soon followed suit, returning to Athens Drive as well.

The challenges for Isaiah Henderson and Cannon did not end with their withdrawal from Village Christian.

Isaiah reclassified from the Class of 2019 to the Class of 2020 when he enrolled at Village Christian, and because Village Christian is on an A/B block schedule, no credits transferred to Athens Drive.

“Sending this child back to public school and he’s already reclassed to your school, that’s going to hurt him,” Dirul Henderson said. “I’m not even on the level of understanding it, but those who are in this school and know how this works, I’m sure they understood that.”

Cannon found himself in a similar situation.

“It hurts because it just messed up my whole football career,” he said. “I was going back to Athens and I was confused with the credits and all that. I just hope for the best.”

Cannon said the promises of exposure never rang true for him. He only heard from one additional college while at Village Christian, and that was NC Central.

“There was no better opportunity. I could’ve got the same opportunity at Athens. I would have rather stayed and finished my four years, would have had no problems,” said Cannon.

Isaiah Henderson said he felt like he did gain more exposure, but wasn’t sure it was worth it.

“I don’t really show it, but yeah it hurts a lot because I went there thinking they were going to help me out when they really just made it even worse,” he said.

Dirul Henderson and his wife hope the investigations by the school and the NCISAA lead to some sort of remedy.

“We still haven’t heard any concern ... about what has gone on and what was done to our son,” Dirul Henderson said. “This is almost a month later and all your actions have already hurt our child. He’s now back in public school. The things as far as exposure and things that were promised, we walk away with nothing and you have a championship to hold onto, a year of bragging rights related to it that came from our child and these other children that I feel like were used to gain you notoriety.”

The students caught in the middle feel the same way.

“They got their ring, then they didn’t need us anymore,” said Cannon.

The Henderson family has been contacted by the NCISAA to provide their account and supporting evidence, such as the recordings, emails and records provided to HighSchoolOT.com. According to the family though, Village Christian’s committee looking into the issue has not reached out to them for any information.