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A.D.A., Sports Clash on School Playing Fields

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Interscholastic sports are running into fresh legal challenges as vexing as deciding whether to run or pass on a third-and-four situation in a football game.

In lawsuits in more than a half-dozen states, secondary school students claim that they have been barred unfairly from athletic competition because of learning disabilities. Because such an impairment typically keeps them in school beyond age 18, the students are too old to compete under regulations governing interscholastic athletics.

Students in middle and junior high schools can find themselves in similar straits, although the rules sometimes allow them to compete with high school students their own age.

A.D.A. Runs Into Sports

Such cases have flourished since the Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1989. Although earlier statutes granted rights to students with learning disabilities, the a.d.a., which took full effect last summer and bars discrimination against the disabled, extends that protection to interscholastic sports, experts say.

Under the a.d.a., "one of the places that districts are very liable is in their extracurricular activities," said Perry A. Zirkel, a law and education professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Public schools have been prohibited from discriminating against disabled students since enactment of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically Section 504, because they receive federal funds.

But whenever impaired students contested eligibility rules to play interscholastic sports, they ran into the equivalent of a wall of defensive linemen.

Schools could blame the state governing leagues for setting rules that make no exceptions for students with disabilities. The leagues, which do not receive federal money, are considered private bodies even though they are made up of representatives from the schools.

Now with both laws in place, "the courts can use one or the other depending on who is the primary target," Mr. Zirkel said.

Safety First

From the state governing associations' standpoint, the issue is safety, as well as the need to impose definitive rules in sports.

They say the older students tend to be stronger, faster, and more mature. And in addition to having a competitive advantage, older students could injure smaller, younger players.

"Whenever you compare a college freshman to a high school senior, it is a pretty phenomenal difference," said Bonnie Northcutt, the assistant to the director of the Texas University Interscholastic League.

"The basic dilemma is we have always wanted to accommodate individual youngsters but had to look at the majority involved in the activity and what it would do to them," Ms. Northcutt said.

But the students and their parents say it is not fair to deny them the right to play.

Sam Sciullo is a 16-year-old freshman from Greensboro, N.C., who repeated the 1st grade after his school district decided he was better off in mainstream rather than special-education classes.

Last year, he was barred from playing football with other 8th graders, but the league said he could play on a high school team. A judge intervened and allowed him to play with his classmates.

Knowing that the situation likely will arise when he becomes a senior, the Sciullos have sued in state superior court claiming that the rules violate the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Unlike the other lawsuits, the defendant in the Sciullo case is the state board of education, which controls elements of interscholastic sports in North Carolina.

"He gains his self-esteem from playing sports," said the boy's mother, Mary Ann Sciullo.

Her son, who is 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs 175 pounds, has interscholastic competition in his individualized education plan, which districts must provide for special-education students.

Age or Disability

So far, rulings have been mixed.

Last month, a U.S. District Court judge denied a student's request for a temporary restraining order against the Nebraska School Activities Association.

The group's rules prohibited the 19-year-old from playing football. The judge wrote that the plaintiff "is not being allowed to play because of his age, not because of his disability."

Only two months earlier, though, a U.S. District Court judge in Texas granted a temporary restraining order to a 7th grader who exceeded the age limit for middle school students.

To do otherwise, the judge wrote, would cause the youth to "suffer immediate and irreparable injury, loss, and damages through deprivation of protected educational entitlements."

Michigan recently lost in federal court in the case of two 19-year-old students with learning disabilities who wanted to participate in track. The case is under appeal, as are several others.

"We are looking for relief at the appellate level," said Helen Upton, an assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. "Otherwise, you are having inconsistency in the lower courts."

Mr. Zirkel, however, said it is only a matter of time before the courts order the leagues to incorporate waivers. That, he said, will spawn another round of legal challenges over how much accommodation is enough.

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