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Special needs athletes get chance to compete

January 22, 2011|By BOB PARASILITI | bobp@herald-mail.com
  • Unified bocce ball gives special needs children the opportunity to compete in varsity sports. In a version of lawn bowling, points are scored for the ball nearest to the yellow ball, known as the pallino or jack.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — Now, everyone will have an opportunity to get into the game.

Thanks to a Maryland state law, Washington County is joining school districts across the state in offering interscholastic athletics to a group of students who have been forgotten over the years — special needs children.

Washington County’s seven schools unveiled a unified sports program on Saturday as special needs athletes competed in season-opening games in bocce ball. The first match featured South Hagerstown traveling to face North Hagerstown in the latest battle for city bragging rights.

The Rebels defeated the Hubs 2-1 in the best-of-3 match. South won the first game 7-5, dropped the second game 8-5 and won the third, 9-6.

“The majority of this is for students with disabilities to have equal access to extracurricular activities,” said Eric Michael, Washington County’s supervisor of athletics. “This will allow more kids to be able to be involved with high school sports. It will allow more kids a chance to feel good about themselves because they can be part of some different positive things in school.”

Scores were calculated and wins were awarded on Saturday, but the main goal was to offer a new — and in some cases, forgotten — group of athletes the lessons that come from competing in team sports.

For Washington County’s schools, it helped fulfill a requirement while filling a need.

“The state law gave school districts three years to implement the program,” Michael said. “If a school ran an athletic program, it had to offer activities for special needs students.”

The unified sports program was created after Maryland’s General Assembly passed “The Fitness and Athletics Equity Act” during the 2008 legislative session.

Washington County joins the rest of Maryland on the ground floor of a possible unified sports movement.

“Maryland is the first state to have this law,” Michael said. “We are kind of like pioneers and the rest of the country will be watching.”

Each district was required to have at least one sport available by the 2010-11 school year and must offer three sports — one each in fall, winter and spring seasons — by the 2011-12 school year. Washington County will be offering two this school year — bocce ball now and track & field in the spring. Tennis will be added next fall.

Unified sports are open to two classifications of special needs students under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act — IEP and 504.

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related services personnel, and students (when appropriate) to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities.

The 504 Plan provides guidelines to help the student get through the school day while performing at the same level as their peers. They range from wheelchair ramps to blood sugar monitoring to an extra set of textbooks or extra time to complete tasks.

Each sport will be considered varsity competition, which allows the athletes to compete in a schedule of events for the school, for championships and for a varsity letter. They will also be honored with the rest of the school’s athletes at sports banquets.

Nine bocce ball teams will compete in Washington County this year, one from every public school with Boonsboro and South Hagerstown fielding two. Four to eight players make up each team, which are a combination of special needs athletes and able-bodied partners.

Teams practice twice a week. Each school is allowed to field up to three teams.

Competition is scheduled in a meet format, bringing multiple teams to one site to play. After a three- or four-game season, there will be a county tournament and a trip to a state championship.

Michael said Washington County has been working on getting the program started and has used the help of other school districts and Special Olympics to launch the new sports.

“Ed Masood (former Washington County supervisor of athletics) did a lot of the leg work on this,” Michael said. “Special Olympics has a representative on loan to each county to make sure that we comply with the law. Through grant funding, Special Olympics has provided the team uniforms, the bocce ball equipment and training for our coaches. The only thing we have to fund is the transportation for the teams.”

The Special Olympics Handbook for Unified Sports Programs offers a number of sports options for consideration, but Washington County settled on bocce ball because of expenses and the ability to use on-school facilities.

Michael said that Washington County was able to draw from the experiences of Frederick and Carroll County schools, which started their unified sports programs last year.

“We’ve gotten a lot of direction from Special Olympics, but Frederick has been a big help,” Michael said. “We talked a lot with Lynn Carr before he retired (as Frederick County’s supervisor of athletics). They had some growing pains, but we were able to take their rules and make them work.”

Although the unified sports program is new, Michael said it has had an impact on the athletic program at each school.

“Coaches are saying that working with these kids takes all the pressure off of them,” Michael said. “They have able-bodied athletes helping each special needs athletes and cheering for their accomplishments. It’s bringing different parts of the school together. It’s not all about winning and losing and it is putting the joy back into sports again.”

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