WPIAL suspends Shady Side Academy girls basketball coach Jonna Burke for recruiting violation

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Thursday, July 20, 2023 | 4:55 PM


When the parents of a basketball player from another school followed her on Twitter, Shady Side Academy coach Jonna Burke checked their profiles and sent them a direct message.

“I am really impressed with (your daughter),” Burke wrote. “I’ve seen the highlights she posted and love her athleticism! If you have any interest in Shady Side Academy I’d love to have the opportunity to talk to (you) guys about it.”

Burke says she was “just trying to be nice,” but the WPIAL board decided her message violated PIAA recruiting rules and suspended her from coaching for one year. The WPIAL held a 90-minute hearing Thursday at its new office in Scott.

WPIAL executive director Scott Seltzer said the board voted unanimously to suspend Burke, who has won more than 500 games in her 28 seasons as a coach.

“The board found that there was a violation,” Seltzer said, noting that such a finding requires an automatic one-year suspension.

Shady Side Academy athletic director Sean Simmons said the school will appeal the WPIAL decision to the PIAA.

“As one of the original founding schools of the WPIAL, Shady Side Academy takes very seriously the importance of following WPIAL and PIAA rules,” Simmons said. “In fact, SSA’s own school policies regarding recruiting hold our coaches to a higher standard than that of the WPIAL and PIAA. We fully support coach Jonna Burke and do not believe she violated any WPIAL or PIAA rules or policies.”

South Fayette’s administration brought the initial complaint to the WPIAL.

Shady Side Academy went 25-4 last winter in Burke’s second season with the Bulldogs and reached the state quarterfinals in Class 3A. A former college basketball player at Pitt, Burke previously coached at Butler and Bethel Park, her alma mater, before being hired as a coach and physical education teacher at Shady Side in 2021.

“Clearly, (coaching) is very important to me,” Burke said during the hearing. “In my 28 years, I’ve tried my best to be above board and run my program with class. … This really hits me hard. I would never knowingly or willingly do something that would get me in trouble and keep me from coaching the team.”

Burke said her direct message went unanswered, and she never had any contact with the parents or the daughter.

Simmons testified that the school investigated Burke’s social media message and found it violated school policy — because all communication must be reported to the admissions office — but it didn’t violate PIAA rules. Simmons argued PIAA bylaws say coaches are permitted to respond to student- or family-initiated inquiries, so the school considered the parents’ action of following Burke on Twitter as an inquiry.

The WPIAL board pushed back against that interpretation in follow-up questions.

In response, Shady Side Academy’s attorney, Kendra Smith, argued the PIAA should update its rules to clearly define social media limitations for coaches. She asked whether a coach “liking” a student’s social media post or replying with a thumbs-up emoji could be considered a violation.

Burke said her Twitter account identified herself as girls basketball coach at Shady Side, so she believed the parents were showing interest in the school when they followed her. She told the board she is quitting social media.

“I’m signing off,” Burke said.

The board asked whether Burke might see the situation differently if she were on the other side as a public school coach. She said, yes, but insisted: “I wouldn’t knowingly or willingly try to poach anyone’s kid.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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