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Decision No. 13,651

Appeal of the BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE SPENCERPORT CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT and GARY and PATRICIA SMITH, on behalf of TODD SMITH, from action of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, Inc., Appeal Panel, regarding athletic eligibility.

Decision No. 13,651

(August 13, 1996)

Lynda M. VanCoske, Esq., attorney for petitioners

McGivern, Shaw & O'Connor, attorneys for respondent, Ronald R. Shaw, Esq., of counsel

SHELDON, Acting Commissioner.--Petitioners appeal the determination of the Appeal Panel of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, Inc. ("respondent") that Todd Smith is not eligible to participate in interscholastic soccer during the fall 1996 sports season. The appeal must be dismissed.

Todd Smith was a member of his high school's soccer team during his ninth and tenth grades -- the 1992-93 and 1993-94 school years, respectively. In July 1994, Todd was exposed to toxic chemicals while employed by the Spencerport Central School District ("the district"), which resulted in progressive physical and mental problems during the 1994-95 school year. In September 1994, Todd joined the soccer team, but discontinued participation in October on his doctor's advice. After being injured in an automobile accident in March 1995, Todd withdrew from in-school courses and received home tutoring and counseling. Consequently, Todd repeated his junior year in the 1995-96 school year and again participated on the high school's soccer team during that year. Todd will begin his senior year in the fall of 1996 and wishes to play on his high school's soccer team.

Petitioner school district requested from respondent's Section V eligibility committee an extension of Todd's sports eligibility for the fall 1996 season due to "medical hardship." By letter dated November 6, 1995, the request was denied because Todd had entered competition for four consecutive seasons and did not meet the criteria for extended eligibility. Petitioner appealed the decision to the Section V Executive Committee and to the Appeals Panel, both of which denied the appeal. This appeal ensued. Petitioners' request for interim relief pending a determination on the merits was denied on May 20, 1996.

Petitioners contend that respondent failed to consider Todd's progressive illness as an exception or mitigating factor in applying Commissioner's regulations '135.4(c)(7)(ii)(b)(1) and that failing to do so is arbitrary, capricious, and discriminatory. They maintain that Todd's participation in the 1994 soccer season was de minimis, competing in only 169 of a possible 2000 minutes of competition. They argue that Todd's situation is similar to and consistent with the illness exception provided for in '135.4(c)(7)(ii)(b)(1)(i) and ask me to reverse the panel's decision thereby extending Todd's eligibility for the fall 1996 sports season. However, respondent argues that a finding in favor of petitioner would require a change in Commissioner's regulations.

Commissioner's regulation '135.4(c)(7)(ii)(b)(1) provides in pertinent part:

A pupil shall be eligible for senior high school athletic competition in a sport during each of four consecutive seasons of such sport. . . . A pupil enters competition in a given year when the pupil is a member of the team in the sport involved, and that team has completed at least one contest.

The regulation provides for a medical exception:

The eligibility or competition of a pupil who has not attained the age of 19 years prior to September 1st may be extended under the following circumstances.

(i) If sufficient evidence is presented by the chief school officer to the section to show that the pupil's failure to enter competition during one or more seasons of a sport was caused by illness, accident, or similar circumstances beyond the control of the student such pupil's eligibility shall be extended accordingly in that sport.

This regulation has been strictly applied in past appeals before the Commissioner. Where a student missed an entire football season due to an injury and related surgery, he was allowed to play football in his fifth year (Appeal of Bd. of Educ., Phelps-Clifton Springs Central School District, 34 Ed Dept Rep 108). However, where a student discontinued play after one game because he had been injured in an automobile accident, the Commissioner held that the student had "entered competition" for that year and that extended eligibility could not be granted (Appeal of Duane, 35 Ed Dept Rep 277). Similarly, Todd's participation in the 1994 soccer season constitutes "entering competition" in that school year, and he is therefore not eligible to participate in the fall 1996 soccer season.