High School Athletic Association must Comply with 504 and Title II of the ADA

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In People of the State of Illinois v Illinois High School Athletic Association, 59 IDELR 153 (N.D. Ill 2012), the Office of the Attorney General in Illinois sought an injunction against the Illinois High School Activities Association (IHSA) to require the IHSA to adopt policies and procedures to allow student athletes with disabilities the chance to compete in IHSA-sanctioned events and competitions. In Illinois ninety eight percent of Illinois public and private schools  are included in the IHSA and these schools rely on the IHSA to organize and administer their state championship meets. Moreover, the IHSA regulates all of the interscholastic activities for its member schools including: establishing eligibility criteria for student athletes, determining which member schools can compete, setting the times and dates during which activities can be held, establishing scoring rules and qualifying standards for student athletes, and regulating qualifications for coaches and officials. The IHSA, however, had not promulgated rules that would permit athletes with disabilities to score points in interscholastic meets. Thus, students who have disabilities that prevent them from meeting the existing state qualifying standards are denied the opportunity to compete in IHSA-run state championship meets. When asked to remedy the situation in order not to discriminate against students with disabilities in violation of  Section 504 and Title II of the ADA, the IHSA took the position that it was a private entity and not covered by either of those federal civil rights laws. As a result, the Illinois Attorney General and Equip for Equality, the Illinois Protection & Advocacy System, sued the IHSA.

In the complaint the Attorney General focused upon a particular student's experience. M.K. was a 16-year-old student with physical disabilities including lower limb paralysis. She needed the use of a full-time wheelchair. She had been swimming with her high school swim team since her freshman year and had participated in local interscholastic track and swim meets. In fact, her swimming times placed her among the top adaptive high school swimmers in Illinois. Her disability, however, prevented her from meeting the qualifying standards that the IHSA sets for swimmers without disabilities. So, she is unable to earn points for her team in these competitions  She was, therefore  excluded from participating in meets on behalf of her high school. Prior to filing the lawsuit, the Attorney General met with representatives of the IHSA and proposed that the IHSA set up exhibition heats and other activities for athletes with disabilities. The IHSA's executive director expressed concern that the IHSA may be exposed to liability but said the IHSA would respond to the proposal. Instead of responding the IHSA filed suit against the Attorney General, who then sued the IHSA under 504 and Title II of the ADA.

The court disagreed with the IHSA's position that as a private entity Section 504 and the ADA did not apply to the IHSA. Section 504 applies to entities that receive federal financial assistance. The IHSA moved to dismiss the case, arguing that it received no such assistance. The Attorney General responded that the IHSA received federal assistance indirectly from its member school districts. Moreover, the IHSA argued that Title II of the ADA did not apply to it because it was not a public entity. The court determined that since 98% of Illinois schools are members of the IHSA  the Attorney General had alleged sufficient facts for the case to go to trial.

After failing to get the case dismissed, the IHSA settled it in September of 2012. The settlement agreement allowed swimmers with disabilities to compete in the 50 yard, 100 yard, 200 yard freestyle and the 100 yard breaststroke.