School sports program for disabled taking shape

August 31, 2008|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,john-john.williams@baltsun.com

With three years to implement a new law requiring Maryland schools to provide disabled students access to sports programs, state education officials say they will spend the coming academic year collecting data and drafting regulations in hopes of setting up a smooth introduction of the measure.

In the spring, the General Assembly passed the bill, titled Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities, which requires schools to allow athletes with disabilities to play wheelchair basketball or tennis, to swim or to otherwise play sports, either among themselves or side by side with able-bodied students.

This year, state officials will be working to draft regulations that will eventually be shared with athletic organizations, school boards and school superintendents, said Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent with the department's Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.

The legislation requires local school systems to submit their plans to the State Department of Education, which will investigate complaints and could sideline noncompliant teams or withhold money from schools or school systems.

Before school systems can get to that point, Baglin and other top education officials will complete a series of meetings to set up parameters for implementation. In September and October, Baglin will meet with leaders from special education and physical education groups.

In February, Baglin will send a progress report to the General Assembly. In the spring, Baglin will have a "comprehensive briefing" with physical education supervisors informing them how to implement adapted activities for students with disabilities.

"We've been meeting regularly every other week," Baglin said. "It's working fine."

State education officials initially opposed the legislation, saying it would require school systems to pay for extra employees - an estimated $2.8 million statewide - to ensure compliance. During this academic year, which will be devoted to planning, school systems will be required to bear little, if any, of the cost.

Next year, school systems will begin to notice a difference, Baglin said.

"The implementation plan will be in place," she said. "We will have collected data on the number of youth with disabilities participating in athletics and mainstream education. We will have developed a guide for adapted PE and athletics."

Among those who testified at General Assembly hearings on the bill in the spring was Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair athlete who attended Atholton High School in Howard County. In 2004, she won two medals in track at the Paralympics in Athens, Greece.

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