HOLLAND, N.Y. (WIVB) — On March 7, 2020, 14-year-old Kierra Kline brought the Holland girls basketball team to the Section VI Class C Championship. Kierra’s coach calls her a natural athlete; only an eighth grader, she was already playing varsity sports.
But for Kierra, it’s her entire life. “I started playing basketball when I was 3 years old,” she said. “My dad coached the team. He would always bring me and my sisters to practices, and then we would just shoot on the side or handle the ball.”
Kierra appeared to be thriving, as a straight-A student and a varsity athlete in both soccer and basketball. But on the inside, Kierra was suffering.
In January 2020, Kierra revealed to her sister that she had been sexually assaulted on a school bus on the way to basketball practice. Her attacker was found guilty on multiple charges in court and suspended from Holland for 40 days. Kierra stayed at Holland Central Schools.
After an unnerving summer, Kierra’s anxiety started to ease with soccer games. But in November, the pandemic surged and forced all Section VI sports to shut down. So did Kierra.
Her parents, Jason and Michelle, remember exactly when they realized Kierra needed to leave New York state. “At dinner, on Thanksgiving, her and I looked at each other and said, ‘We don’t have a choice. We’ve got to get her somewhere where she can live a little bit,'” Jason Kline said.
Jason and Kierra headed south to Florida to stay with their family. Though in a different state, she felt at home with her temporary team at Palm Harbor University High School. “My mindset was perfect,” Kierra said. “It was really what I needed to heal after everything.”
Once COVID restrictions eased in February and Section VI started high-risk winter sports again, Kierra and Jason returned home. Eager to get back to a semblance of normalcy, the Klines filled out the required New York State Public High School Athletic Association Transfer Request.
Days later, as first reported by the Athletic, Kierra was ruled ineligible. “Some of the coaches in the league decided to question her eligibility, along with the Section VI Executive Committee,” Jason said.
State rules say that under certain conditions, athletes are entitled to one transfer while playing varsity sports. However, Kierra already used her one transfer. It was a move the family made when Kierra’s older sister, Kaylin, was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect in 2019.
“We struggled that entire year as a family,” Jason said. “Having appointments in and out of Cleveland, frequently. The travel, the distance, the time.”
To make their schedule easier, and to abide by the Section VI rules, the Klines moved Kierra from Pioneer, where her mom was a teacher, to Holland, their home district. After the transfer rejection, Section VI Executive Mark DiFilippo was made aware of Kierra’s attack, and the state of her mental well-being. Additionally, Holland Superintendent Cathy Fabiatos submitted a request for the NYSPHSAA Transfer Rule to be enacted in Kierra’s case. That rule says if a student has gone through a hardship, they can be exempt from penalization.
In her letter, Fabiatos wrote: “I verily believe the student’s health and safety would be put at risk if the student was not permitted to participate in Section VI athletics.”
But DiFilippo and the committee did not agree. “The Section VI Executive Committee has decided that Kierra has not had a personal hardship and is not qualified for a transfer waiver,” Jason said.
On March 4, Holland Central Schools filed an appeal to the committee. In a detailed note, Fabiatos explained both hardships the Kline family endured, the sexual assault of their daughter Kierra, and the diagnosis of serious heart disease with their daughter Kaylin. Almost exactly a year after Kierra brought Holland to the championship, the Section VI Executive Committee denied that appeal.
Holland girls basketball coach Sam Arnold is baffled. “If you look across the landscape of high schools athletics, across all of Western New York, there were kids left and right that left and came back,” said Arnold. “And she seems like she was the only one who was penalized.”
NEWS10’s sister station in Buffalo contacted all eight members of the committee to discuss Kierra’s situation. Only Section VI President Brett Banker and Section VI Executive Mark DiFilippo responded, saying they could not speak on specific cases involving students.
The Holland School District told the Kline family that they would not be filing an additional appeal on Kierra’s behalf. DiFilippo also says Kierra has the ability to play JV soccer in the Fall, and varsity basketball once the winter season starts in November 2021.
Jason and Michelle Kline continue to wonder why the sexual assault of their 15-year-old isn’t considered a hardship. “Maybe they should come over and take a look at her one day, when she’s huddled up in her room, crying in the corner,” Jason said, before turning sarcastic. “‘Yeah. I really made a good decision. I really followed the rules. I really stuck to my guns.'”
Now, as she waits for her one-year ban to run out, Kierra says the season played at Palm Harbor University saved her. “I don’t know if I would have made it. Cause I was in a really rough state, mentally,” Kierra said. “I don’t even know if I would be here. Honestly.”