Last updated: February 20. 2013 3:40AM - 290 Views

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A new federal directive requiring schools and colleges to include interested disabled students in sports was hailed as a good idea by area public school superintendents Friday, but some voiced concern that it could impact budgets or create legal challenges.

I think it's a great idea, Wilkes-Barre Area Superintendent Bernard Prevuznak said. Being a former coach myself, I know participation in sports promotes teamwork; it teaches kids to help one another through diversity. From the standpoint of helping someone with disabilities, it's a great idea.

The new emphasis on accommodating students with disabilities in sports comes via guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education.

Supporters have likened it to Title IX, the 1972 federal law that required gender equality in educational programs. But the guidance is not a new law; it's clarification of what districts and colleges receiving federal money must do to comply with existing law.

The new guidance was prompted by a Government Accountability Office report, which found students with disabilities are not always afforded equal opportunity in sports programs.

The GAO recommended the Department of Education clarify school responsibilities. The guidance, issued Thursday, is intended to provide that clarification.

Superintendents contacted Friday by The Times Leader said they hadn't yet read the new guidance and noted the impact will depend on the details of compliance, and the cost. We will have to look at our budget, Prevuznak said. I'm sure we'll have to look into our facilities and accommodations that have to be made.

Wyoming Valley West Superintendent Chuck Suppon said the district already complies with much of what the guidance requires as far as simpler accommodations, such as a visual cue to a track athlete who is hearing impaired.

And he promised, whatever is going to be put in place through this, obviously we'll comply.

Cost factors unknown

But the guidance could open the door for more expensive accommodations, primarily because it says that, if a student's disabilities preclude participating on an existing team even with reasonable modifications, schools could be required to launch a new program, such as wheelchair teams for basketball – an example mentioned in the guidance.

Specifically, the guidance says When the interests and abilities of some students with disabilities cannot be as fully and effectively met by the school district's existing extracurricular athletic program, the school district should create additional opportunities for those students with disabilities.

Suppon said it's unclear if this requirement could be met by reinstituting intramural sports within a district, or if it would require a stronger effort. There is also no mention of additional federal or state money to cover costs of such compliance.

Is this going to be another unfunded mandate, where our basic education funding is squeezed yet we are asked to expand opportunities for individuals in athletics? Suppon asked. I don't know.

Suppon also noted the guidance requires districts to set up a system for students to appeal a school decision they feel does not comply with the guidance. That could increase legal costs.

Northwest Area Superintendent Ronald Grevera said he hadn't read through the new guidance but questioned how student safety will fit in. You want to make sure students can't get hurt, Grevera said. Safety and welfare are key in athletics.

If a student wants to participate in a sport, but a district decides an intellectual disability creates too high a risk of injury, Grevera asked, could a district comply by having the student participate in other ways, such as helping out on the sideline at a football game?

All three superintendents said their districts already comply with the guidance in many ways by providing reasonable accommodations. The question going forward will be the definition of reasonable.

What about a student who truly wants to participate but is physically impaired to the point it's impossible to make the team? Suppon asked. What type of alternatives must the district do to comply with that student? These are the questions I have.

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