Athletics and IDEA

Recently, our local newspaper carried a front page story about a high school student on an IEP who was being told by the state’s high school athletic association that he couldn’t play in his school’s football games. According to the article, their rules said he had used up his eligibility to play because he was taking an additional year to graduate.

Extra Time to Graduate is Typical in Special Education

Needing additional time to complete school is typical for students in special education. In our book, we write about how our son’s school in Massachusetts tried to force him to graduate before he had earned enough credits to apply to a four-year college, and how we had to file for a hearing to prevent this from happening.

IDEA is very clear that schools must allow students on IEPs to participate in extracurricular activities “to the maximum extent appropriate to the child.” The student in question, Noah Britton, had been on the varsity football team the previous year and had played in scheduled games with other schools. There is no question that Noah has the right to continue to play football to the maximum extent appropriate for him.

Athletic Association Rules or IDEA?

The state athletic association, however, cited a rule that a student can’t continue to play varsity sports after eight semesters of high school enrollment. By taking an extra year to graduate, Noah would be in his ninth semester during the fall football season.

So, does the athletic association rule supersede federal law? We don’t think so, and the confusion is just one more example of why parents with children in special education need to be aware of their child’s rights or run the risk of their child losing out on an appropriate education.

Below, we have attached the letter we wrote to the Asheville Citizen-Times regarding the athletic association rules verses the legal requirements of IDEA.

Our Letter:

Dear Editor:

In reading your story about Noah Britton’s dispute with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, it appears that the association is unaware of the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that protects the rights of students with identified disabilities to receive an appropriate public education up to age 21 or high school graduation, whichever comes first.

In particular, the association seems to be out of compliance with regulation 34 C.F.R. § 300.117, which states in part that “each public agency must ensure that each child with a disability participates with nondisabled children in the extracurricular services and activities to the maximum extent appropriate to the child.” A related regulation, 34 C.F.R. § 300.107(b) makes it clear that “extracurricular services” includes athletics. So yes, the IEP extends to sports, and always has. It is Noah’s right to continue to participate in the football program to the maximum extent appropriate for him.

It is also worth noting that IDEA requires schools to address the social and emotional development of students with disabilities, not just academics. Reading about how happy Noah was to play in an actual game is the definition of what this means. Too many students in special education are made to feel like second class citizens, and we applaud Asheville High School and coach David Burdette for what they have done for Noah.

From our lay reading of the law, it seems clear that Asheville High School is required to allow Noah full participation in the football team’s activities, including games, and that the North Carolina High School Athletic Association is attempting to violate federal law by preventing Noah’s participation.

We hope that the NCHSAA will reconsider its opposition without further delay. If not, we would like to point to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was explicitly written to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. 29 U.S.C. § 794a(b) allows the “prevailing party” in a lawsuit over a violation of the statute to collect “a reasonable attorney’s fee” as part of the cost of remediation.

Judith and Carson Graves
co-authors Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work

A Postscript

We heard back from the newspaper a few days ago. Our letter was not printed because it contained too many words.

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