Special Athlete, Special Case

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.8, September 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1208/bbspecialathlete.htm

Sam Gambrel hasn’t won any points yet for his cross country or track and field teams, but he’s still a big part of the program at Shelbyville High School in Indiana. He’s also the reason the state is revisiting its rule governing special-education students’ participation in high school athletics.

Gambrel’s disabilities, which stem from oxygen deprivation at birth, do not prevent him from training and entering meets with Shelbyville’s cross country and track and field teams. He’s not eligible to earn team points, however, because his special-education plan leads to a certificate of completion rather than a high school diploma as required by Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) eligibility rules.

So far, the rule has not hindered Gambrel or Shelbyville, but there’s concern that could change. "Sam’s not certified to compete at the varsity level, so he has competed at the junior varsity or freshman level," says Harry Larrabee, Shelbyville’s Athletic Director. "Let’s say Sam is our eighth or ninth runner in terms of times. He would not have counted in our scores anyway. But as he continues to improve, next year he may fall into that category of earning points."

Gambrel’s family has filed a federal complaint over his eligibility status. Laws designed to guarantee equal educational opportunities for children with disabilities generally include extracurricular activities, including athletics, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. For that reason, the Indiana Department of Education has taken an interest in the case, with its legal staff advising that schools that follow IHSAA dictates could violate disabilities law.

Kevin Marlowe, a lawyer for the Indiana Department of Education, explained in a memo to the state education superintendent that students in special education typically do not take part in interscholastic athletics because they lack prowess in most sports. But on cross country and track teams that do not limit rosters by ability, barring students with disabilities could violate the law.

Marlowe has suggested an amendment to IHSAA rules modeled after policies in Delaware and Iowa. State high school associations there give eligibility to students in special-education programs that don’t lead to the traditional diploma if the students are making satisfactory progress. That determination is made by the educators who develop and carry out each student’s plan—usually a committee in each local school system.

An draft amendment developed by Marlowe would allow eligibility for students who are in special education and not pursuing diplomas. They would have to receive passing grades in the most recently completed grading period in at least 70 percent of their subjects or their equivalent as reflected in their individual educational programs. That echoes current IHSAA eligibility standards, which require regular education students to have passed 70 percent of their classes during the most recent grading period and to take 70 percent of a full academic load.

IHSAA Commissioner Blake Ress says he appreciates Marlowe’s help, but that lawyers for school systems in Indiana remain skeptical that the amendments drafted so far would avoid opening a loophole ripe for abuse—they fear that students perfectly capable of earning a regular diploma may seek "certificate of completion" status to gain easier sports eligibility.

"This is sad to say, but there are people out there who would forego a diploma and forego graduating from high school if they could just play sports," Ress says. "We can’t have a rule that would allow that to happen. If they were able to participate without that requirement, there are people who would just be interested in athletics."

Marlowe has suggested specifying that the diploma-track exception would apply only to students who have been assessed as not capable of earning a high school diploma and thus are working toward a certificate of completion—not simply to any student receiving special services. Students with learning disabilities may have individual educational plans but still follow the diploma track, he explains.

Another option, Ress says, is having parents sign an agreement that their son or daughter is not pursuing a traditional diploma. "We’re working on wording that would apply to a very narrow group of students but could not be expanded to apply to anybody who simply wanted to play without passing," he says.

Iowa has a policy that relies on the extensive documentation required to enter a student into an individualized special-education plan, says Budd Legg, Information Director for the Iowa High School Athletic Association and a former school administrator in the state. "There is a considerable amount of testing and paperwork that goes into determining whether students can be served through special-education programs," he says. "A student who doesn’t need the help couldn’t get in just because they’re failing. I would not fear a crackerjack athlete in Iowa trying to get into a special-education program so he or she could participate. That just doesn’t happen."

In Shelbyville, meanwhile, school officials and the athletic department try to cope while helping Gambrel participate. "We’re not involved in the sense of promoting or making judgment on it," Larrabee says. "We try to be proactive about our kids and certainly are sensitive to the situation. But we’re a member of the IHSAA and have to go by their guidelines as they’re written.

"Sam’s a very positive young man," Larrabee continues. "He loves the activities that athletics brings and the competition. In high school, we are always looking to do what is best for any of our students, and Sam works hard and enjoys it. He has a smile on his face all the time and continues to improve."