Omaha Metro Schools Ahead of Federal Mandate

Lindsey Theis

Omaha Metro Schools Ahead of Federal Mandate

CREATED Jan. 25, 2013
Omaha, NE - Public schools may soon have to include disabled students on sports teams or risk losing federal money. 
The order from the U.S. Department of Education could bring sweeping changes to school budgets and locker rooms.
Schools would have to make "reasonable modifications" to allow disabled students to participate. For example, a deaf baseball player would be able to play, if an additional coach was on the field to communicate with the player through sign language.

Disability advocates are thrilled, "With this clarification, students with disabilities will no longer be forced to sit on the sidelines, only observing the participation of their peers, but now will be able to have an equal opportunity to participate in club, intramural or interscholastic athletics at all education levels," said Eric A. Evans, Chief Operating Officer of Disability Rights Nebraska.

"This increased opportunity for inclusion will allow students with disabilities to derive the benefits of socialization, improved teamwork and leadership skills and fitness which their non-disabled peers have always derived from participating in extracurricular athletics," said Evans.

Omaha Public Schools spokesman Dave Patton says OPS does not prohibit disabled students from participating, as long as a student can pass a physical, they can participate. They will also have to try out for teams, like any other student.

"Parents will make that choice and ultimately, it will come down to the parents." Patton said.

Patton adds that all OPS teachers and coaches have some special education training and disabled students also have IEP's (individual education plans) that specify the type of instruction a specialist, teacher, or coach should provide a disabled student.

At Ralston Public Schools, one of the smallest districts in the area, Athletic Director Mike Smith says they also already make accommodations to include disabled students. In the past they have had deaf basketball and baseball players.

Coach Bill Heard has had deaf football, basketball, and softball players. He says while he can remember communication struggles, those eventually melt away.

"Kids kind of take care of each other and the coaches as well. It's kind of who you are and you don't pay attention to it," Heard said.
There are already federal laws requiring states provide a free K-12 public education to all students, and they prohibit schools receiving federal money from discriminating against students with disabilities. This letter now goes further to say that if schools don't have sports that include disabled students or modify programs to include disabled students, they could loose federal funding.
The Department of Education released this letter ( Friday explaining the new mandate.