The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) recently replied to a letter from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) seeking clarification on OCR’s January 25, 2013 Dear Colleague Letter on students with disabilities in extracurricular athletics. As reported in a previous FR Alert, the Dear Colleague Letter provided guidance to school districts on their responsibilities to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from the districts’ nonacademic services, including their existing extracurricular athletic activities.

In its recent letter to the NSBA, OCR clarifies that while students with disabilities must be provided with equal access to a school district’s existing extracurricular athletic activities, this does not mean that every student with a disability has the right to be on an athletic team, or that school districts must create separate or different activities just for students with disabilities. It further clarifies that providing this equal opportunity does not mean compromising student safety, changing the nature of selective teams, giving a student with a disability an unfair advantage over other competitors, or changing essential elements that affect the fundamental nature of the game.

OCR also elaborated on the requirement that school districts must conduct an individualized inquiry to determine whether reasonable modifications or necessary aids and services would provide a student with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in an extracurricular athletic activity. Specifically, OCR stated that a student’s Section 504 team does not necessarily need to convene when a student with a disability wishes to take part in extracurricular athletics in order to make this individualized inquiry. Rather, this inquiry must simply involve a reasonable, timely, good-faith effort by the individuals with the appropriate knowledge and expertise (e.g. coach, district athletics official, student, student’s parent, and/or teacher) to determine whether there are reasonable modifications or aids and services that would provide that student with equal access to the particular activity.