Last New Year’s Eve, Eric Dompierre was at a party with his high school basketball teammates. At 12:30 a.m., he called his father, Dean Dompierre, to see if he could stay out for another hour. By 2 a.m., his father was good-naturedly dragging him home. (Both are pictured.)
It was a typical night in the life of a teenager in Ishpeming, Mich., a small mining town of about 7,000 people in the state’s Upper Peninsula, exactly the sort of night that Dean Dompierre had always wanted for his son.
Eric Dompierre has Down syndrome, which led to his being held back in junior kindergarten and first grade. Now Dompierre is a junior at Ishpeming High School, doing well in school and navigating the tricky social hierarchy of the teenage world, in part because of his participation in basketball.
He may, however, be prohibited from playing his senior season because the Michigan High School Athletic Association bars anyone who is 19 as of Sept. 1 from participating in sports for that school year. Dompierre turned 19 in January.
“That’s one of the bigger things that I’m afraid he’s going to lose if he can’t be part of a team next year,” Dean Dompierre said, adding, “Just the fact that he’s not there doing what they’re doing is going to lose him some of that social interaction and social life.”
Whether Eric Dompierre will play again for Ishpeming will be determined by the state association’s 19-member representative council. A majority of the council would have to vote to pass the request on to all of the member schools, who would then vote on the measure. Two-thirds of the schools would need to vote in favor of the amendment for it to pass.
John Roberts, the association’s executive director, said the council denied Ishpeming’s first request in December 2010 because it was “too narrow,” with language specifically requesting a waiver for students with Down syndrome. In December 2011, the council denied a second request, which suggested language specific for students with Down syndrome as well as language used by Ohio’s high school association for age-rule exceptions. Roberts said Ishpeming’s second request received “less and less support” as it was discussed during summer and fall meetings last year.
A third request, which was submitted March 26, suggests language used in Ohio and seven other states that include similar age-rule exceptions for students with disabilities, with no specific reference to Down syndrome. It could be the Dompierres’ best — and last — chance to change the rule.
Roberts said the “broadening definition” of disabilities led to a discussion of where the line would be drawn, and raised concerns about the potential number of waiver requests. Such an exception could open up the state association to allegations in court, he said, as the lack of an exception did in 1995 in an age-rule case that reached the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The association was a defendant, and the court found, according to Roberts, “to decide which disabilities should and shouldn’t apply for waiver put an undue burden on the association.”
Dean Dompierre first did the math regarding his son’s eligibility four years ago, after the varsity basketball coach saw Eric playing in the gym and said, “I’ve got him down as a four-year player.” Eric soon began attending off-season workouts and also joined the football team as a backup kicker. The basketball season ended in March, but Dean started preparing Eric for the possibility that his athletic career was ending when the second request was denied. He answered with more uncertainty when Eric would ask, “How are we doing with the law?”
Dean posted a petition in support of his son on the high school’s Web site on March 23. A week later, more than 70,000 people had signed it.
Dompierre has also sought help from Deborah Moore, the associate commissioner of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, who wrote her state’s age-rule exception.
In Ohio, if a student is considered disabled as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the school’s principal, on behalf of the student, can submit an age-exception application, consisting of an outline of the disability and statements — to gather rivaling perspectives — from the principal and an administrator of a school that plays the student’s school in sports, outlining four main criteria: safety risk, physical advantage, competitive equity and redshirting.
“This is basically a rule of compassion,” Moore said.
Moore could not recall any cases in Ohio that had ended in court. Over nine years, statistics provided by Moore showed 24 disabled high school students had been approved and 16 had been denied, with one pending.
Roberts said the Michigan association had not specifically investigated the success of Ohio’s rule.
It is unlikely that a decision will be made regarding Eric Dompierre until May, when the association’s representative council is next scheduled to meet.
“Ultimately, the rules for Michigan high school athletics are not to be established by online petitions and they’re not going to be established by what happens in other states,” Roberts said. “It’s going to be determined by what the schools of this state want for its operation.”
Thursday, April 12, 2012
The NY Times:
Posted by BA Haller at 4:34 PM