Ohio Officials Suspected Bishop Sycamore Was A Scam And Yet Did Little To Stop It
8:58 PM EST on December 19, 2021
The Ohio Department of Education released on Friday the findings of its investigation into Bishop Sycamore, the scam high school that rocketed to national infamy in August after its football team, supposedly stocked with Division I talent, got blown out 58-0 on national television. Within days of the blowout, it became clear that not only did Bishop Sycamore lack elite talent, it also lacked physical classrooms and anyone checking to see if students even signed up for classes. It sure looked like a scam. On Friday, the state officially confirmed this.
The idea of a scam high school, usually called a diploma mill, isn't new. They've existed as long as people have realized there's lots of money to be made off of athletes who want to play in college and dream of playing in the pros. Much has been written about schools like Bishop Sycamore and the way they sell athletic promises and NCAA dreams while they take cash from the government. But pulling this off also required the Ohio Department of Education to ignore a lot of warning signs about the school. In fact, according to its own investigation, the department had heard from a reporter with questions about the school as far back as 2019, nearly two years before the national television disaster.
What follows is, based on the state's own investigative report, a roundup of all the times before that Aug. 29 game when state officials received concerns, or flagged their own, about Bishop Sycamore.
The first time, according to the state investigation, that a tip came in was Aug. 27, 2019. On that day, a reporter with the Daytona Beach News-Journal submitted a request to the education department for information about Bishop Sycamore. The school had been scheduled to play Daytona Mainland but that game was canceled due to a "breach of contract," which in this case meant Bishop Sycamore did not provide a full roster in time and also did not book a hotel within 30 days of signing the contract to play the game, the News-Journal reported. The article, by Chris Boyle, is littered with doubt about Bishop Sycamore, like how the school had no history and was not a member of the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
The reporter's request spurred the director who oversees nonpublic educational options, Sue Cosmo, to ask her staff to find an address for Bishop Sycamore and try contacting it. Here is what that turned up:
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.Ohio Department of Education's report on Bishop Sycamore
Did this lead to the department asking more questions? Launching an investigation? No. Instead, the report says, "With little more information to go on at the time, staff did not review any further."
These signs did not go away when Bishop Sycamore officially registered with the state. In June 2020, Bishop Sycamore submitted its paperwork to register with Ohio as a non-chartered, non-tax supported school for the 2020-2021 school year. It did provide a mailing address in Columbus, 303 S. Grant Ave., which on Google Maps looks like a building on Franklin University's campus. The paperwork did not provide a separate physical address, which is not required if it is the same as your mailing address, according to the investigative report. Bishop Sycamore also did not respond to a question about how many students were covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, per the report. And there was more that was missing from, or at least odd about, the application.
Further, the school indicated that all required courses of study would be provided to students, although it did not list the teachers assigned to the courses. The form was signed by Andre Peterson, as the school administrator, with an “R.” in front of Andre. Included with the form was a fire inspection acknowledgement from the City of Columbus, Division of Fire for the building at 303 S. Grant Avenue. The acknowledgement form was accompanied by a Fire System Testing and Inspections document for Franklin University. Shortly thereafter, Bishop Sycamore submitted an inquiry to the Department asking where to direct parents to verify “certification” for Bishop Sycamore High School.Ohio Department of Education's report on Bishop Sycamore
The report does not say if anyone within the department ever stopped to ask a simple question: "Hey, what happened to that strip mall address?"
On Sept. 8, 2020, Bishop Sycamore told state education officials that it wouldn't be able to use the building it had been renting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and asked if that meant it would be OK to use an "alternate address for the 'district HQ'." Per the investigation report, department staff asked if Bishop Sycamore planned to provide remote learning for the entire year but "the school indicated only that it intended to have a new address by the time students returned to in-person learning."
Even though a state investigation was a year away, another journalist would draw attention to the school. On Sept. 12, 2020, Bishop Sycamore lost 33-6 to the St. Ignatius Wildcats. A game recap, written by Matt Goul of Cleveland.com, described Bishop Sycamore as a "unique opponent" with "some loose ties to the defunct COF Academy." COF stands for Christian of Faith Academy—a non-chartered, non-tax supported school with an ambitious football schedule that the Ohio education department shut down "for not meeting the minimum standards," according to background provided on COF Academy in the Bishop Sycamore investigation report.
At this point, the department began "looking into" the connections between COF and Bishop Sycamore. Concerns were sent to the Ohio High School Athletic Association. What came of this—for example, whether the OHSAA responded or not—isn't said in the state's document. Then, on Sept. 17, 2020, the Reynoldsburg City School District contacted the education department. It was having trouble withdrawing a student, who wanted to attend Bishop Sycamore, because the information provided by about Bishop Sycamore "was not accurate." Here is how director Cosmo responded:
Cosmo replied to the district that Bishop Sycamore High School was not, at the time, listed with the Department as a non-chartered, non-tax supported school. Nevertheless, Cosmo clarified that it was possible that the school intended to be listed as a non chartered, non-tax supported school, but that the process would not be complete until September 30. Cosmo advised that because there was no confirmation at the time Bishop Sycamore was a private school, the district should consider asking parents to submit a home education notification to the district superintendent so that the students were not deemed truant.Ohio Department of Education's report on Bishop Sycamore
On Sept. 22, Reynoldsburg contacted the department again, saying that now several students wanted to attend Bishop Sycamore. That same day, the department's staff responded to a request for a status update from Bishop Sycamore by saying it needed to submit its new address. The report does not say how the Reynoldsburg issues were resolved.
Throughout November, December, and into January of 2021, the department heard from the people behind Bishop Sycamore, asking questions about when they will be approved to be on the list of non-chartered, non-tax supported school. But even as staff had doubts, they didn't act on them. Per the report: "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. "
In January, the school provided a new address. It was not much better than the old one.
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.Ohio Department of Education's report on Bishop Sycamore
At some point, "another inquiry" came in about Bishop Sycamore. The report does not say from whom it came, only that it was an email that asked "whether Bishop Sycamore was accredited or recognized by the Department."
And yet, on Feb. 10, 2021, the department issued a letter saying that Bishop Sycamore would be listed as a non-chartered, non-tax supported school for the 2020-21 academic year. In response, Bishop Sycamore asked if it had to be listed publicly as such on the state's website. The staff said yes. The game that brought it all tumbling down would be played six months later.
The full report from the state of Ohio is below.