Friday, November 05, 1999

Judge keeps player off team

Disability law doesn't apply

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In a decision that leaves Ohio's eight-semester high school eligibility rule intact, a federal judge Thursday denied Hamilton senior Ryan C. Dixon a ninth semester of interscholastic sports.

        U.S. District Judge Sandra S. Beckwith said the disabled and emotionally disturbed 18-year-old failed to prove he couldn't benefit from school without football, basketball and baseball.

        She said Hamilton city schools and the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) were correct when they argued that sports weren't necessary to protect Mr. Dixon's rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

        “It is a victory in which they should take no pride,” she added. “It is puzzling to the court that school administrators, purportedly advocates for disabled students, would oppose something that so clearly benefits one of its students.”

        Turning to OHSAA, she added, “Waiving the eight-semester rule in Ryan's case would not have jeopardized any of the policies the rule serves.”

        OHSAA's assertion about the importance of interscholastic competition to education “amounts to mere hollow words when it refuses to bestow those benefits on a student who legitimately needs them more than the typical high school student,” Judge Beckwith said.

        Criticism apart, schools attorney William M. Deters II welcomed the ruling that sports participation was not required by federal laws protecting the rights of disabled students.

        Mr. Dixon's attorney, Robert A. Klingler, said he was pleased that “the judge apparently recognizes the unfairness of the application of the rule in situations like Ryan's.”

        David Dixon, Ryan's father, said he will probably not appeal.

        “It's already cost me an arm and a leg. To appeal, it would take such a long process,” he said.

        David and Ryan Dixon still

        have their eyes on college for the young athlete, though chances for a scholarship look dim.

        “What I'll probably have to do is pay for him to go for a year to show his talents,” David Dixon said.

        Ryan Dixon has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar/manic-depressive disorder, and opposition defiance disorder.

        Among other problems, he has trouble sitting still, concentrating on his studies, and dealing with anger and authority. He is subject to wide mood swings, from suicidal depression to jittery elation.

        Those disabilities forced him to repeat ninth grade at Winton Woods High School.

        He moved to Hamilton High for 10th grade, began to play three or four sports, and received support from coaches, teachers and counselors. His grades and anger control improved.

        However, OHSAA said both freshman years counted against his eligibility and barred him from interscholastic sports this year.

        When OHSAA rejected family appeals, the Dixons sued, saying Hamilton city schools and OHSAA violated Ryan Dixon's rights under federal disability laws. They asked for an injunction extending his eligibility and barring OHSAA from punishing Hamilton High if he played.

        At a hearing last week, Ryan Dixon said sports helped keep him controlled and focused enough to succeed and to have a chance at college and an athletic scholarship.

        “I don't associate with school without sports,” he said. “When there's school, there's always sports.”

        In large part, Mr. Klingler built his case on Ryan Dixon's federally required Individualized Education Program (IEP) that called sports “essential” to his academic and behaviorial success. Mr. Klingler argued unsuccessfully that “essential” elevated interscholastic athletics from a privilege to a right.

        Mr. Deters and OHSAA attorney Steven L. Craig responded that Mr. Dixon's behavior and grades improved at Hamilton High even when he didn't play, and regardless of how the IEP valued sports, athletics is not a required educational service.

        Judge Beckwith agreed with them.

        Victory, however, didn't shield the defendants from Judge Beckwith's scorn.

        Noting that Hamilton educators said they must obey OHSAA rules and that the sports association said it must enforce rules adopted by member schools, the judge said, “Lost in the middle, of course, is Ryan.”

        Judge Beckwith said that a school system that is “charged with educating our children and which purports to recognize the educational benefits of athletic competition ought to be able to develop a system that would allow children in Ryan's situation to be eligible to participate.”

        Similarly, the judge said OHSAA's rigid no-waiver eligibility policy “seems to be justified largely by the ease of administration .... In other words, the association and its members do not wish to be burdened by a case-by-case analysis of an individual student-athlete's particular circumstances.”

        Enquirer reporter Saundra Amrhein contributed to this article.



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