Laurel Prep Academy is known for basketball, but what the News4 I-Team learned goes on when the students are off the court is now under investigation by the state.
Life, for Randall Nelson, always seems to teeter on the rim.
"Violence, drugs, peer pressure. It's a lot." Randall told us he never knew his mother. His father passed away when he was five.
Shuffled from relative to relative, Randall said he first ran away when he was 13. "I was running away from a life that I didn't want. An abusive life, you know?"
He ran until he found basketball. “I see the basket and the ball. Everyone else, I blank it out,” Randall explained. “Everyone knew I was going to go somewhere."
But he said he realized late in the game he needed better grades at a better school if he wanted to play at the college level. "I was going to transfer to a whole different school for my senior year. But I wouldn't be eligible to play basketball. So, I went to Laurel Prep so I could play and still get my education."
Randall said Laurel Prep Academy told him it could get him the attention of college recruiters while he, at the same time, finished high school.
He played plenty of basketball, but his grades? "I didn't complete a course," Randall admitted.
The News 4 I-Team found no one else on the team has either. Multiple sources said most of the players have either already graduated from high school or go to another high school to get their education. A few, like Randall, were initially enrolled in online courses, but Randall explained Laurel Prep never paid the bill.
Laurel Prep’s coach and founder, Levet Brown, took us on a tour of where the Laurel Prep students were supposed to study. It’s a computer lab inside the Laurel Boys and Girls Club, which Brown also runs.
When we asked if the computers worked, Brown explained, “No, they’re not. They’re not. We don't have the Internet running over here."
Brown said none of the students pays to go to Laurel Prep. "This school is free."
He showed receipts detailing how the Boys and Girls Club pays for Laurel Prep's uniforms, travel and other basketball expenses.
But when it comes to classes, he and Harriet Cox, the school’s academic administrator, could only produce emails showing how many credits Randall and another student needed to graduate, making many wonder if Laurel Prep is nothing more than a basketball farm team.
Cox said, “We signed them up for classes, but it didn't suit them."
Even though her title and shirt say she's Laurel Prep's "Academic Administrator," Cox told us she isn't responsible for educating the team's players.
"It's a college prep program,” she said. “And all we're doing is basically trying to get kids to qualify, whether it’s trying to get their ACTs done, their SATs done. We haven't had anybody right now take their ACTs or their SATs through us. We've registered several kids through the online program and they wasn't successful on it, because they was trying to say I was the educator. I'm not the educator. I'm a registered nurse."
That's when Cox said she doesn't consider Laurel Prep to even be a school. "It's not a school, OK? It's not a school."
But that's not what the Maryland State Department of Education says. The I-Team found Laurel Prep Academy is registered as a "church-exempt school," meaning it is exempt from state oversight as long as it is connected to a religious organization.
We found Pastor Tony Igbenoba, the man who is listed on the state paperwork as the church sponsor for Laurel Prep.
"Wow, I fell for it," Igbenoba said. He explained his Power of Liberty Ministries International was renting space inside the Laurel Boys and Girls Club for its church services when Brown asked him if he could use the church's tax ID number.
"He said to me that my tax ID would be used for Laurel Prep school to help kids that are less fortunate,” Igbenoba said. “Who dropped out of middle school or high school to be able to play sport and at the same time get an education."
But Igbenoba said when he discovered the kids weren't actually getting an education, he withdrew his support. "These kids that are here aren't going to school.”
That was news to the Maryland State Department of Education, which told the I-Team it is now investigating Laurel Prep after what we told them we had uncovered.
Without the church's affiliation, Laurel Prep would no longer be exempt from state oversight.
The NCAA told the I-Team it’s seen a growing number of people who “create a basketball team and call their team a school, but they outsource the education.”
The NCAA said students should always check its “high school portal” to see if a school they’re interested in meets the NCAA’s academic criteria.
When we searched for Laurel Prep, we found it was not on the list.
Which bring us back to Randall, who told us, "All my life, there's been adults that I've trusted, there's been people who said they will get me places, but they all end up leaving."
He's now working as a security guard, making just enough to pay for the online classes he's now taking on his own to get his GED.
He told us, "Someway, somehow, I have to teach kids that this game is not all about shooting the ball.”
To teach them what no one taught him: You have to go to school if you don't want to miss your shot at something great.