Toolbox Tuesday!! Let’s talk about extracurriculars!

How important is it for your coaches and sponsors of extracurricular activities to know about a student’s disability? According to a recent court case from California: very important.

Students and their parents sometimes file lawsuits after a coach dismisses a player from a team. Those lawsuits are rarely successful. Courts are not likely to intervene in such disputes. Moreover, while kids have a legally protected right to get an education, they have no “right” to participate in extracurricular activities.  So cases over athletics, cheerleading, and debate team are usually tossed out of court quickly.

That’s not what happened in Elk Grove, California.  The district asked the court to dismiss the case but the court refused to do so.

While there is no “right” to be on the basketball team, there is a “right” not to be discriminated against on the basis of disability.  In this case the parents allege that their son was left off the varsity basketball team because of his disability.  From the court’s opinion it sounds like the school is basically conceding that point.  The student was kept off the team not because of a lack of talent, but due to behavioral issues.  The student had an IEP due to his emotional disturbance.  The school basically argues that it can keep him off the team due to his behavior, even if the behavior is a manifestation of disability.

At this early stage of legal proceedings the court rejected that argument.  Key Quote:

Although the evidence may later prove plaintiff’s behavioral outbursts meant he did not meet the requirements for temperament of a Varsity basketball player, plaintiff’s allegations, construed in his favor, plausibly show he “met all of [Varsity’s] requirements in spite of his handicap.”

I’ll offer a prediction on this one. I think the school will ultimately prevail in this case.  Controlling your temper is a legitimate requirement for participating in varsity sports.  I expect you could line up coaches from here to the Super Bowl to testify to the truth of that statement.  So even if the emotional outbursts are part of the student’s disability, they would prevent him from being “otherwise qualified” for varsity sports, which is the standard the student must meet as per Section 504.

But let me offer another observation. The school will be wise in this case to demonstrate the steps the coaches took to “reasonably accommodate” the student.  Think about it. If a blind student or a wheelchair bound student wanted to be in the band, and could play an instrument properly, you would expect the band director to make “reasonable accommodations” to enable the student to participate. But the student would still have to play the instrument properly.

It’s no different when the student’s disability affects behavior.  Here, the district had identified the student as emotionally disturbed and had an IEP for him.  The coaches knew this, or they should.  So, just as in the case of the blind or wheelchair bound student, the coaches need to make “reasonable accommodations” before they apply their rules of behavior. If, after reasonable accommodation, the student is not capable of abiding by the rules, the student can be removed from the team.  But if reasonable accommodation is not provided….no telling what the court might say.

This is the kind of thing we talk about in Toolbox presentations.  The Toolbox is a full day training program focused on the rules for taking disciplinary action with students with disabilities.  If interested, let me know—we are booking dates for next calendar year.

This case is Brown v. Elk Grove USD, decided by the federal court for the Eastern District of California on February 20, 2018. We found it at 71 IDELR 163.


 Tomorrow: federal special ed funding cut by millions due to T.E.A.’s error.