POINCIANA, Fla. (WFLA) – With the right paperwork, almost anyone can start a religious college and state law allows hundreds these institutions to operate without government oversight.
The pitch from freshly minted Saint Sebastian Elite College was convincing enough to attract athletes and professors from hundreds of miles away to the hamlet of Poinciana near Kissimmee, but several have become disillusioned by what happened next.
A half dozen now-former St. Sebastian football players said they believed their recruiter enough to travel from Michigan but they added “there were red flags” from the start.
They claim they were promised housing that turned out to be motels, sometimes with four to a room. Their football field was a city park and they were asked to share helmets on a team of less than 20 for a season that lasted only two quarters.
The campus address listed with the state is actually the location of the Poinciana Community Center. Operations Manager Eldonia Gonzalez said St. Sebastian “should not be using our address.”
Brandon Stewart, 20, of Lansing, Michigan, said he noticed something odd about the faculty who taught remotely.
“Every single one of my friends had the same one,” Stewart said. “And I was like, is there only one professor for the whole school?”
Jennifer Gray, who taught English 101 from South Carolina, alerted the students about her St. Sebastian suspicions after faculty was not being paid.
“I feel like a pawn in a chess game,” Gray said. “I personally had nothing to do with it and none of the other faculty members that I was brought in with had any knowledge and we’re thoroughly disappointed.”
Religious institution applicants are required to provide the Florida Department of Education with a sworn affidavit with five stipulations including a religious connotation in the college name. St. Sebastian is the “patron saint of archers and athletes and of those who desire a saintly death,” according to brittanica.com.
Another requirement is “each degree title must include a religious modifier that immediately precedes or is included within.”
After 8 On Your Side started investigating, St. Sebastian degree names were changed, according to a review of the college website.
Examples include the “Associate of Science in Sports Management,” converted to “Global Sports Ministry.” The “Associate of Science in Business” was rebranded as “Christian Leadership and Business.”
St. Sebastian received its verification letter in June and started classes in the fall, charging students $6,000 a semester, according to St. Sebastian Vice President of Academic Affairs Lovella Jones.
Jones said the college is working on its accreditation.
“We know we started small, but you have to start somewhere,” Jones said. “We believe in our future.”
She also said the college is working on paying its instructors what they are owed. A September email from Jones to faculty members indicated staff was promised three payments each semester.
“However, because I felt I was asking a lot of you guys, we did 1/2 now and 1/2 at the end to make it easier for all parties involved,” Jones wrote.
Several on the string stated they had not been paid anything at the time, and Gray said she and others are still waiting for their first check. Gray added attempts to file complaints were stalled by the law that protects religious institutions from government oversight.
But her main concern is the students.
“They told me they came here on a hope and a dream,” Gray said.
Then, they were asked to share helmets for a season that ended after half a game.
Linebacker Keewone Parker, 20, of Lansing, said after access to classes was frozen, he moved back to Michigan.
“Coming down here, it’s kind of like a slap to the face,” Parker said. “Now, I just hope someone will put me on their roster. I’m waiting.”
Gray said she hopes students understand their professors had no idea the apparent problems were looming.
“[Faculty members] were as duped as they were and they’re out so much more than we are,” Gray said.
In October, a college administrator said there was student body of about 35 students. Jones would not comment on how many students are still enrolled, but she said the college is looking forward to its second semester slated to start in January